Fragile – Memoir and Poetry by Jude Brigley

To What We Lost – Jude Brigley

Jude Brigley writes a wonderful tribute to her mother about the hard days of losing her. What I truly appreciate in reading this kind of piece is the honoring of her own experience without sugar coating or stylizing, but allowing the beauty and sorrow piece itself together in its natural course.


FRAGILE

My mother is talking to ghosts of her past. She says she has just heard the news that her uncle has died. She calls me to come quickly and I stumble from the couch in the next room, worried out of half-sleep, to find her stark upright in the reclining chair that she refuses to recline in. 

  ‘Uncle Arthur is dead,’ she says baldly, her eyes wide with shock and grief. I say nothing but nod in concern.  I am concerned, but not about Uncle Arthur. His dust has been scattered on winds for fifty years. 

  ‘Auntie Nell was here,’ she continues, distraught. ‘We need to let Christine and…..’ she pauses, ‘the other maid…’ She does not mean domestic servants. Being locked up with her, door barred to the virus, I know her mind. When she cannot think of a word, her brain darts around the blockage and finds another way.

  ‘Claire,’ I suggest.

 ‘Maid’ a quaint word for a young woman. Straight out of the Georgette Heyer or Jeffrey Farnol novels she loved as a girl.

  ‘Yes,’ she says with relief. ‘how can we let them know?’

  ‘Leave it to me,’ I say. She relies on me for practical tasks, so this soothes her mind.

  ‘And sadly, his sister has died on the same day. How can it be managed?’ This thought makes her distraught.

  ‘We will find a way.’ I say calmly. ‘Now, are you in pain?’

  ‘I am always in pain,’ she says snappily as if I should know better.

  ‘Shall I get you a tablet?’

  ‘What’s the use?’ she asserts. ‘You always want to give me a tablet.’

  ‘It’s to help the pain.’

She tuts. Tablet taking has become a chore. She no longer wants to take them and has been known to spit them out or to sit staring at her closed fist, only to open her hand in surprise and let a blue or a white tablet tumble into the folds of a blanket or roll into dark recesses under furniture.  I have been known to cajole, to plead, to hector over such moments, knowing that to suck a slow-release tablet is to overdose. To not know the dosage is to court spikes of pain. 

  ‘No need to be nasty,‘ she says 

  ‘I will have to tell the nurse you are not taking them.’ I tell her in exasperation.

  ‘Do you know me?’ she asks challengingly. 

I wonder if this is some kind of trick. ‘Of course,’ I say, ‘You are my lovely mother.’

She snorts at this. ‘Then you know that no nurse is going to tell me what to do,’ she says with a mental stamp of her foot. A literal one would be too painful.

 I laugh out loud and hug her. ‘You are my mother,’ I say in a kind of relief at her spirit.

 ‘I don’t know why you are laughing, she says, ‘I mean it.’ But I can’t help it. Her determination is so familiar. She has faced cancer three times with practical and stoical calm. But, her festering leg is becoming more than she can stand. She flicks the tablets on the night table away in a gesture of defiance and disdain. And perhaps, she needs to do this. This. These are her last acts of assertion. 

  ‘I think my mother should know about Arthur,’ she says.  ‘Is she upstairs?’

I pause. I do not want to lie to my mother, but I do not want to upset her either. It is as if the pain has made her retreat into a time in her life when she was happy and safe. 

   ‘It’s late.’ I say. ‘She is sleeping. We can tell her tomorrow.‘  Then, trying to be business-like, I add, ‘You need to settle down and go to sleep. It is three o clock.’

 ‘In the afternoon?’

 ‘No, in the night.’

 ‘Oh dammo, I am keeping you up again.’

 ‘No matter. But, you need to settle down.’

 ‘I need the commode. And I want a cup of tea,’

I know these are reasonable requests, but my heart sinks a little as I think of my pillow and blanket in the other room.   

      There was a time when my mother would not undress in front of us. Even on the beach. Everyone had to hold up towels for her to change into bathing suits. ‘Turn the other way,’ she used to admonish us. Now, like a child she raises her arms to be changed. She has no qualms about sitting on the commode. One day I go in and she is sitting naked having folded her nightdress in a neat square. These are signposts to her illness and her thresholds of pain, crossed many times into the recesses of her mind. 

  ‘You are not doing anything,’ I say as she just sits on the commode complaining of her leg’s agony. ‘You need to drink more.’ I offer her painkiller which this time she drinks greedily.

I feel her impatience at being told what to do. ‘I am staying here until I am finished.’

I leave her and make tea. Going back, she is half asleep. 

  ‘You need to get back to the chair,’ I say. ‘Are you ready?’

   ‘Are your sisters all dead?’ she asks me tentatively, as if not really wanting to know. I have no sisters, and my brother, although he visits every day, is not allowed in, as my mother is sheltered from the virus. 

       I realise that she thinks I am her mother. And why not? Everyone says I am like her in my appearance and my ways. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘sadly, they are.’

She scrutinises my face. ‘No,’ she says. ‘That is not right. Why did I ask that? I am losing my mind. It is not fair to lose my mind. I would rather lose my leg.’

  ‘You are all right.’ I say. ‘You are safe.’

  ‘I am going over the surgery to speak to that doctor,’ she asserts. She has got up and is limping to the door. 

  ‘No, Mama.’ I bar the door. ‘It’s the middle of the night, and doctors won’t let you in anyway.’

  ‘I won’t forgive you for stopping me,’ she says angrily.

I gather myself into a tight ball of string. I am the elastic bands she weaves into round shapes in the long afternoons. ‘Yes, you will,’ I say, ‘yes you will.’

She sits as if defeated. I cannot take her suffering from her or shelter her from what she must go through. 

  ‘Let me help you to your chair,’ I say. She allows herself to be aided and as we go she says, ‘Thank you little girl. I don’t know your name but thank you.’

  ‘Where is my husband?’ she adds, ‘Why does he not come to see me?’ 

She has asked this before. The first time I told her he had died. She cries like it was fresh news. The second time, I say he is at work. That placates her. She asks my brother unexpectedly the same question, as he leaves the groceries at the door, and taken aback he tells her the truth. Later, my mother accuses me of lying to her. Now, I must play my hand with care. ‘He is over the library,’ I say.

  ‘Has my mother gone with him?’

  ‘Yes.’ I say hesitantly. I expect her to say that the library is shut but she seems comforted and ready to settle down. ‘It’s five o clock,’ I say. ‘We should be sleeping.’

I bend across her to pull the blanket up and she opens her eyes wide. They are very blue oceans. Then, she looks at me in delighted recognition. She kisses my cheek and says my name. 


Keeper

In her last days, I would lift my mother’s head in my hands,
placing her cranium on the pillow, as painstakingly
as a priest or a sculptor, feeling her bones
rest in the feathers, like a small boulder,
as my hands slipped away, and her with no voice
to acknowledge my awkward progress .

I was the child who tripped over chalk lines,
dropped my coins in the grating, slopped
my tea cup on the Sunday-best cloth.

As the nurse stooped to bandage her legs,
raw and crusted as a war hero’s,
my mother’s eyes observed without reproach,
as I let the bowl’s soapy water lap
to the floor, staining the carpet.


Author:

Jude Brigley

Memoir Exerpts by Miriam Sagan

To What We Lost – Miriam Sagan

From her memoir in progress called “Stash,” Miriam Sagan shares the confusion and some life altering moments in her childhood. It is riveting to read the perspective of a life filled with different events, different interactions, and yet the feelings are all too familiar. They touch the inner workings of a child’s mind with pure and simple honesty.


Done 

My mother and I are in a painting class, I think at a Y, in the city. I’m maybe four years old. It’s real paint, thick, strong primary colors. Real brushes, big handled, broom to whisk the paint on to paper tacked on the easels. My mother is painting fireworks, blossoms of color dripping down the sky. I’m painting…well, whatever a child paints. Shape. Big. Thick. Flow.

     My mother doesn’t tell me it’s good. She cares about her painting, not mine. 

     “How do you know when you’re done?” she asks. She’s asked me, a child. “I don’t know,” I say. “It’s just…done.” 

     She looks so sad. “I can’t tell,” she says. “I don’t know when to stop.”        Somehow I’ve failed her, but how was I supposed to know there was going to be a question?

     Then the teacher starts criticizing coloring books, because they stifle creativity. I feel panic, because I love coloring. Don’t take it away from me. As an adult I’ll like to fill in blocks of color—with embroidery or marbling.

     How do I know I’m finished? Fortunately I’ll forget about my mother’s pained question and just go on or stop when I want.

     Some things don’t stop. Memory, my fear of teachers, my sadness about my mother. What would I tell her now, when she’s dead and I’m old. Don’t stop. Nothing is ever finished.

Fall

     Everything falls—that’s the name of the season…seed balls of the gum tree, tiny helicopters from maple, chestnuts in their brutal casings. Piles of leaves and I get bitten by yellow jackets lurking inside as I ride through on my bike. It’s my charger, my mythical steed, but when I get a fancier one with hand brakes I crash into a privet fence, trying to brake by pedaling backwards. Habits die hard even in childhood, and later on all of childhood seems a habit it is impossible to break. Break my childhood and it will shatter like the snow globes I loved to collect—little tourist plastic spheres housing innocuous images. But where else could I shake something and see the Statue of Liberty covered in glitter snow or tiny plastic fish float up the Empire State Building? The habit I can’t break—probably don’t even want to—is that I am amazed by everything in my world and afraid of all the adults in it. It’s going to be difficult to work this one out.

The Baby

     The baby died. At least I think so. I’m ten years old. My mother’s live in- help, O, is a tall handsome Black woman from North Carolina. She’s almost forty, with two grown daughters. She gets pregnant by her common-law- husband, my mother’s expression, and wants to go home to her own mother and have the baby. That is when O. and my mother argue. My mother is worried. This is 1964, and almost forty is considered dangerously old. My mother wants O. in New York City, where my mother will pay for her  to see a famous Park Avenue obstetrician (my mother’s). Instead, O. goes back to North Carolina. “The baby dies.” At birth? Before? After? No one explains to me. It isn’t really any of my business, as a child, which I understand. But still, I feel sad. Did my mother know something real about the lack of care for Black women in the South? Did O. know something about how alien she’d feeling in a Park Avenue waiting room? Sometimes, do babies just die? Years later, I’ll know other babies that died at birth. Everyone will be shocked and stricken, but it does not surprise me. My mother had my three younger siblings, then O’s baby died. A baby I never met. Can only imagine.

The Block

     Turn right from my house, down the driveway. A large white house with what my mother calls a porte-cochere. My mother in her own way is a pretentious person. She did not speak English until she went to school, and yet she can pull out a French name for a grand entry way. My mother is hiding who she is, yet not completely. This is true of the other mothers on the block. The drunk mother, stoned on pills. The suicidal mother, dead in the garage. The mother with a lover. Things happen that I can’t even begin to tell you about yet. That is why I am hiding this story in plain sight, the way it has always been hidden.

Dyslexia

     In the first grade, I teach a boy named Chipper how to tie his shoes. It’s natural to me to explain what I know, but the teacher praises me for being kind. I don’t really like Chipper, and don’t feel very kind. It just seems wrong for me to know and him not to. That is the last praise I get. I can’t read. Pretty soon I’m in the “slow reading group” with, of course, Chipper. I can’t read at all. Consonants, vowels, they swarm across the page like ants after crumbs. If I’m lucky, I can count and figure out what sentence I’ll be asked to read. I may know a few words, or letters. Then I’ll listen carefully to everyone else. If they read “See Spot” I try to find something similar in my sentence. My parents lecture me. My father, the Freudian, says I am afraid to grow up. I want MY PARENTS to keep reading to me. My mother yells that I am not paying attention. Then the lecturing begins. I am not living up to my potential. Soon they will be saying I won’t go to college or get married because I won’t “meet anybody interesting.” I’m too dumb.

However, the summer of fourth grade I do begin to read. I have no idea why. Suddenly it comes together. I’m still not doing well in school and people are still yelling at me but I now have the most beautiful secret worlds into which I can escape. Reading remains unusual for me. I can read extremely fast, and sometimes words light up in different colors. All of these things have names, and a diagnosis. But to me this is just how things are.


Author:

Miriam Sagan is the author of over thirty books of poetry, fiction, and memoir. Her most recent include Bluebeard’s Castle (Red Mountain, 2019) and A Hundred Cups of Coffee (Tres Chicas, 2019). She is a two-time winner of the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards as well as a recipient of the City of Santa Fe Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and a New Mexico Literary Arts Gratitude Award. She has been a writer in residence in four national parks, Yaddo, MacDowell, Gullkistan in Iceland, Kura Studio in Japan, and a dozen more remote and interesting places. She works with text and sculptural installation as part of the creative team Maternal Mitochondria in venues ranging from RV Parks to galleries. She founded and directed the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College until her retirement. Her poetry was set to music for the Santa Fe Women’s Chorus, incised on stoneware for a haiku pathway, and projected as video inside an abandoned grain silo in rural Itoshima.

Follow:

Her blog is Miriam’s Well–http://miriamswell.wordpress.com

The Art of Depression: Mark Blickley

Artist:

Mark Blickley

Mark Blickley is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center. He is the author of Sacred Misfits (Red Hen Press), Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes from the Underground (Moira Books) and the just published text based art book, Dream Streams (Clare Songbirds Publishing House). His video, Widow’s Peek, was selected to the 2018 International Experimental Film and Video Festival in Bilbao, Spain. He is a 2018 Audie Award Finalist for his contribution to the original audio book, Nevertheless We Persisted.

About the Piece:

A memoir that chronicles  his strange epiphany that occurred when he was a returning warrior.

“Lying the Truth”

One of the happiest days of my life occurred during the Winter of 1973. I was on military leave from the Air Force and it’s an understatement to say that I needed much more than a three-week vacation. I was on the verge, or probably more accurately, in the midst of a nervous breakdown.

            I’d pulled a tour of Vietnam. The past few months I had been finishing out my enlistment at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. The war was a sour experience, but what deepened my depression and anxiety was the peacetime service. After the fear and excitement and brotherhood of combat, I was deposited on a base full of non-combatants pretending to be hard-ass military men.

            I had blocked in aircraft half-naked on the flight line while enemy rockets fell around me. At Charleston AFB if a button wasn’t mated with a hole or a boot lacked a glossy polish, or God forbid, a hair was touching my ear, I’d be jumped on like I’d just set fire to the American flag. Instead of support and relief, we Vets received hostility and harassment for our lack of military bearing. Glowing write-ups while under fire met nothing; a real man didn’t replace his government issue boxer shorts with Fruit of the Loom jockey briefs.

            My unhappiness ripened into confusion and envy.

Everyone else seemed to be adjusted or adjusting. Everyone else seemed to be happy. My sadness frightened me. I felt as if I was shut out of some universal secret. I truly believed that there was some kind of personal information that hadn’t been passed on to me. Even the drugs I was consuming at the time were not agents of euphoria. Instead of offering a numbing comfort they simply increased my awareness of how alienated and needy I had become.

            My behavior had become so erratic that my First Sergeant “strongly suggested” I take an immediate leave and straighten myself up. My last words to him before I left his office were the same words I was asking everyone I met, stranger or acquaintance.

            “Are you happy?” I asked.

            My First Sergeant eyed me with suspicion. I was totally sincere. “Yeah, I’m happy,” he muttered.

            “Why? Can you tell me why?” I pleaded.

            He cleared his throat and said, “Because I’m getting rid of your ass for a few weeks, that’s why I’m happy.” He was being totally sincere too.

            Now this may seem a bit silly or naive, but I felt like the only way I could pull myself out of this debilitating funk was to try and understand how and why others could be so functional and contented. My opening question, “are you happy?” was always, and I mean always answered in the affirmative.

            The sources of all this happiness were quite varied. It could be a girlfriend, a job, a car, a good bottle of cognac, anything. The point is that no one told me they were unhappy. No one. My question didn’t give me any answers I could use as clues. It just made feel more depressed and estranged.

            During the course of my three week leave I visited my older sister who was working her way through college as a belly dancer. She was living somewhere Upstate New York Jamestown, I think. I met her at the club she was working and was given the keys to her apartment. She told me to just relax there until her performance ended; I’d be seeing her in a few hours.

            I remember being stretched out on her living room floor, smoking a joint, listening to an eight track of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition when I heard a knock on the door. I opened the door on a small, incredibly stacked young woman with a southern accent. I introduced myself to my sister’s neighbor. This sexy young woman, Becky, invited me to wait over at her apartment. I eagerly accepted. I could

tell by her friendly and aggressive behavior that she was

attracted to me. As I pulled my sister’s door shut behind me I could already feel my face smothered inside Becky’s perfumed cleavage.

            I wasn’t feeling too thrilled with life; I took comfort wherever I could find it.

            My hormonal heat flared as we entered her one room apartment. We sat on the couch facing the biggest framed photograph I’d ever seen.

            Actually it wasn’t a photo at all. It was a poster of a sleazy looking man of late middle age. This skinny poster boy had sparse, greased back hair and a kind of moustache popular in the thirties a thin pencil line of facial hair underlining his large nose. Beneath his grinning portrait, in bold letters, I read FRANK COLE, A&P MANAGER OF THE MONTH. The month was August, 1971. I admired Frank’s courage in exposing his dental work. Even though the photo was in black and white you could tell his teeth had to be green.

            The ornately framed poster dominated the tiny room. I fought back my laughter. I didn’t want to insult Becky’s father. I just wanted to bang his daughter.

            Well, Becky talked and talked and talked. What I mistook for her lust seemed to be a genuine affection for my sister

that she transferred to me. As soon as I realized this I

shifted from horny G.I. to soul-searching outcast.

            “Are you happy?” I asked Becky.

            Becky beamed and nodded.

            “Why?”

            Becky pointed to the Manager of the Month. “It’s because of Frankie. He’s the most wonderful man in the world.”

            I glanced over at the poster and it made me sick to think of that guy with this lovely, sweet girl. Becky was definitely on the sunny side of twenty-five.

            She launched into a description of Frankie Cole that was so loving and awe-inspired, by the time she finished her tribute to him his portrait started looking handsome to me too.

            When my sister arrived I gave Becky a goodnight peck on the cheek. I was more depressed than ever. It’s not that I begrudged Becky her joy, but even a guy like Frankie Cole was able to attain a state of happiness. And here I was, a twenty year old in wonderful shape with a full head of hair and nice set of teeth, feeling like the most miserable man on earth.

            The first words my sister said to me after we entered her apartment was that she hoped I hadn’t taken advantage of Becky because she was a really good person.

            Take advantage? What was she talking about? How could I take advantage of Becky? I never met anyone who was as much in love as was Becky. Who could possible hope to compete with August 1971’s A&P Manager of the Month, Frankie Cole?

            My sister shook her head. She told me that Becky had engaged in an affair with Frank Cole a couple of years ago when he was manager of the Produce department and she was a part-time grocery clerk. Frank was married and told the teenage Becky how horrible his wife was and how miserable his life had become. Frank arranged to have Becky transferred to Produce and they shared passion for about a year amongst the fruit and vegetation. During this time Frank would pacify Becky by promising to divorce his wife.

            Becky, feeling so sorry for her man, called Frank’s wife and demanded she set Frankie free from his house of torture. The next day Frank had Becky transferred out of Produce. He tried to end their relationship but Becky wouldn’t listen. She was a woman in love. After Becky began making weekly calls to Frank’s wife, he had Becky transferred out of his store and into an A&P some sixty miles away. He refused to see her.

            My sister informed me that Becky’s life now consisted entirely of working at the new A&P five days a week. On Becky’s two days off she’d drive over to her former supermarket and sit in her parked car for hours, watching her beloved through the store’s large windows. Frankie Cole had abandoned her, wouldn’t even look at her, but Becky would not and could not abandon the man she loved.

            My response to my sister’s version of Becky’s story was anger. Becky had lied to me! I was vulnerable and she lied to me! I had asked for help and she teased me with her broken fantasies of emotional well-being.

            That night the three of us went out to dinner at a local diner. My hostility towards Becky manifested itself by my total silence during the heavy, grease-laden meal. I observed her like a scientist waiting for a disastrous reaction in his laboratory.

Frank Cole’s name was never brought up. Becky was charming. And warm. And sweet. And funny. My anger melted into pity. By the time dessert arrived I had had a catharsis, along with a touch of gas.

            I realized that Becky and all the others I questioned hadn’t lied to me. Claiming they were happy and giving me their reasons for their happiness was an act of kindness and hope. I knew that Becky’s love crisis was every bit as intense as my military crisis, yet she was a model of grace under pressure. Her imagination had provided her with the ability to still experience pleasure despite the awesome burden of a crushing reality.

            If fantasy was allowing her to function at such a high level, well, I thought, God bless the human imagination and its ability to construct protective worlds of security and satisfaction.

That was the secret I was searching for. Like Becky, I had found it inside Frankie Cole’s imposing icon.

            Although the food from that diner dinner repeated itself throughout the night and into the early morning, it was the best meal I ever consumed. I learned to swallow my self-pity watching Becky that night.