Category: Creative Non-Fiction

These are short pieces written over the last several years. If you are not familiar with this genre, creative non-fiction is personal essays with maybe just a little creative license. These things really did happen to me, truly. I may have changed the timing a little, or embellished the color of the sunrise, or changed a name or two. But these are true stories; I just looked back at them later through the lens of someone who writes. Some of these were originally ‘published’ on the back of my kids’ school newsletter and I have re-posted them here, the pieces may not reflect my kids’ current age.

Sasha of the White Boots

She had a pair of white leather boots with fringe around the top, and she wore eye shadow. We were in seventh grade. I was twelve and she was thirteen and a half; it was enough to endow her with mystery and charisma by itself, but the boots and the swagger cinched it.

We lived in a small town in Colorado, where the houses were set far back from the streets and into the mountain, everyone had four-wheel drive, and some of my classmates lived thirty minutes away. Sahsa Winters moved into a rental house within walking distance from mine, just over the hill, around an enormous boulder we called “the thinking rock,” and down a little dirt path. The little house was low to the ground and had a sloping roof and one window, and changed tenants every six months or so. In November, when she showed up in Mrs. Jeffery’s seventh-grade homeroom with her flame red hair, olive skin and high cheekbones, wearing those amazing boots, it was all the girls talked about. A couple days later, when I’d taken my blue diary with a silver key to the thinking rock, probably to write about how badly I wanted a puppy or my unrequited crush on John Lambert, I heard a girl yelling at someone, “Move your ass!” I looked through the aspen trees to see Sasha kick the tire of an old jeep as it pulled, screeching, out of what passed for a driveway. She turned and our eyes met. I froze. I didn’t know any other girls who used the word “ass,” especially directed at someone old enough to drive. Possibly even a parent. I could see that it was the mysterious, beautiful new girl from school, and she was walking toward me.

“Hey,” she said, folding her arms over her chest. Her right hip swung out when she did this, a gesture that was both juvenile and womanly but seemed unconscious.

“Hey,” I croaked, pulling my diary closer to me to hide it. It had butterflies with little smiling faces on it, and My Dairy printed at the top. I had liked it until this moment, when it suddenly seemed ridiculous.

Sasha jerked her chin up at me, almost imperceptibly. “Whacha doin? Writing somethin?”

“Um, yeah. Just…a journal sort of thing.”

“Huh. That’s cool,” she said. She kicked at a rock for a moment. She was wearing the white boots again, those beautiful soft leather boots with the swishy fringe. If I owned those boots, I thought, I’d never kick at the dirt. I’d keep them perfect. I’d wipe them down every night with whatever you wipe leather down with, and walk gently at all times. She looked up, tossed her wavy red hair behind her and said, “You wanna come over?”

Thus began my friendship with Sasha Winters, the most fascinating girl in the seventh grade. I sat on the single bar stool at the peeling counter in her kitchen, and she sat in a tattered arm chair eating potato chips, though it was nearly dinner time. We talked until she looked bored, and I said I’d better be getting home. Her house had green shag carpet and dark paneling and smelled like cigarettes, but because it was hers and so different from my own, I found it thrilling.

Sasha didn’t come to school every day, and when she missed a day and was asked where she was, she would shrug and say she took a day off. Surprisingly, the teachers never pressed her for more information. She was so good at math, she could do the class work in half the time it took the rest of us, though she never seemed to pay attention. When Mrs. Jeffery tried to stump her by putting a problem on the board from the back of the book, the part with long algebra equations, Sasha sauntered up and did the equation with bored indifference, getting the right answer. And when our language arts teacher once said, “Sasha, can I see you at my desk, please?” Sasha barely lifted her eyes from her notebook, where she was doodling a picture of a girl standing on a rock, her wild hair blowing in the wind, and said, “Just a sec.” The room went silent. It was public school in the 1980s, hardly a bastion of deference and respect for authority, yet there was something about the way she said it: just a sec; as though they were peers. As though she were doing Mrs. Davis a favor. More amazingly: Mrs. Davis waited. There was a flash of shock or annoyance in her eyes for a split second, but she waited.

Sasha’s jeans were tight and her hair was so long it grazed the bottom of the back pockets on her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. She wore no makeup except a fat Bonnie Bell lip gloss in strawberry surprise, which she applied often and violently. Everything else, she did with a kind of slow, deliberate ennui. And though she wouldn’t lower herself to having a best friend, or doing any of the other things seventh grade girls did–wearing friendship pins on the laces of their sneakers, giggling about boys, singing the refrain of Peter Cetera songs in groups at recess for no apparent reason–she seemed to have chosen me for her one friend. I was her sidekick and lunch table companion, and it was a role for one. By unspoken agreement, I gave up my other friends, for the most part, even Susan Peters, my best friend since second grade. At the beginning, Susan once said, “Why do you like her?” “She’s interesting,” I said. “She’s really smart.” Susan was smart, too; it must have stung. I couldn’t say, I don’t know. She’s cool. She makes everyone else seem boring. But I thought it.

“Well, I don’t like her,” Susan said. “Her hair is greasy. She won’t talk to most of the girls in the class; it’s snotty. And I think she’s poor.” “Her hair is not greasy,” I said. “And she’s not poor. Her parents are…artists or something.”

I had never actually met Sasha’s parents; they were never home. I imagined they were artists because the house smelled like cigarettes and the green shag carpet struck me as bohemian, though I didn’t know that word yet. Usually no one was home at Sasha’s house, except the man in his twenties who came and went, sullen and silent, except to tell Sasha to do this or that small chore. I had no brothers, but this was within the range of behavior for brothers, or step brothers who fell within that murky no-man’s-land between teen and grown-up.

My own parents were charmingly pleased, in a detached sort of way, that I had a friend and classmate just a short walk away. Playing with Susan and Tracy and my other friends required our mothers to coordinate the driving. My mother was glad I often went to Sasha’s house now, and often told me to ask her home for dinner. I never did. By some tacit understanding, we always hung out at her house, and I did not include her in my family life, the way I had with Susan and the others. She wouldn’t have wanted to eat dinner with my parents and sister, talk about her own parents and what her favorite subject was. Sasha was somehow above all that.

She did come over once, on a rainy late afternoon when the wind was whipping the pine trees around. It was not the kind of weather to be out in and my mother fussed over her at the front door, taking her coat and hurrying her into the foyer, offering her something warm to drink. Sasha mumbled something about needing to look at my geography book, and we hung out for a couple hours. She borrowed my Roses & Romance nail polish and painted her fingernails in stripes and polka dots. I had never seen anyone do that before. “Is anyone home at your house?” I ventured. I thought maybe she was getting bored. She looked at me strangely for a second, then said, “Just Derek. He’s in a foul mood.” So, he had a name. Derek. It suited him. Maybe he was yelling, and she wanted to get away. I was flattered she’d chosen my house, though there was really nowhere else she could go on foot. Hesitatingly, I asked her if she wanted to eat dinner with us. Maybe she heard the insincerity in my voice; she blew on her nails a few times and said she had to go home. She never asked to see my geography book.

Months went by, and my mother did eventually register some concern. Why did Sasha never come over here? Why had I not seen Susan in a while? What was Sasha’s mother’s name, again? I had no idea. She was casual in the way she asked, but I knew it was now on her agenda to find these things out. For a week, Sasha and I continued to sit together at lunch, go to her house on the days when I didn’t have choir practice or a piano lesson. We’d flip through magazines and talk idly about the pictures. Sasha had a tattered spiral notebook she kept under her mattress. She never let me look at it, and once when she was in the bathroom I pulled it out quickly and opened it. Her loopy, childish cursive covered each page with what appeared to be poetry. Sad, strange poetry, with titles like “Smash the Glass” and “Obsidian.” I didn’t know what the word meant. Some were less dark; one of them went The moon was high, the wind was warm, I  drank the tears of the summer storm… I heard the bathroom door open and hurriedly stuck it back under the mattress.

In April, just as the grass was peaking up through the crusty, melting snow, I went to Sasha’s house. She hadn’t been at school, and I was curious. She was alone, taking clothes out of her little cardboard dresser, piling random objects into the boxes on the floor.

“We’re moving,” she said.

“Oh,” said. “Where?” I tried to sound casual.

“I dunno. Durango, maybe. Derek thinks it’s cool there.”

“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t imagine why Derek’s opinion mattered that much. Just then he opened the front door and yelled, “Sasha, hurry up already! I’m freezing my ass off out here!” She rolled her eyes elaborately.

“Nice brother,” I said. Sasha went to the small closet–it had no door but she’d hung a sheet across it like a curtain–and pulled out a shoe box, laid it carefully on top of some clothes.

She laughed. “Derek? He’s not my brother. We’re married.” She turned and began to take down the closet curtain. “Help me,” she said.

“You’re…married?” I said. She only nodded.

I didn’t ask any more. My mind was reeling; inside I did an enormous double take and felt the sting of shock, but I quickly stifled it. I filed away this information with other things I once thought were true but turned out not to be: koalas are not actually bears, the moon does not get bigger and smaller. Apparently, people did not have to be adults to be married.

“When are you leaving?” I asked. Sasha shrugged. A couple days, she said, but she never came back to school. She was gone the next day, and if anyone knew where, I never heard about it. I never told anyone what she’d said, either, but I am convinced it was true. I don’t know what state she’d been married in, or with whose permission, or what she was escaping that made her do it. Maybe she loved him, or thought she did. Maybe she was forced, or felt forced. She never seemed particularly happy, but few girls do when they are fifteen. We’re married, she said. Then: Help me. Did she mean just with the curtain?

I never really said goodbye, just see ya, as usual, as I headed home. I ran all the way this time; the sudden, exuberant run that children break into for no reason. I ran into a small branch of a pine bough that scratched my cheek a little. It stung, and the pain felt oddly good. I burst through the door to my own house breathless and windblown.

“Oh, good, you’re home,” my mother said as she took pork chops out of the oven. “Susan called. She’s having trouble with the social studies homework. You’d better call her back.”
I took the stairs two at a time to the phone in my bedroom, with the selfish relief of someone who has seen someone else’s boat capsize in a storm. I smelled the pork chops and laid my head down on my old Holly Hobby pillow, looked up at my blue canopy bed. Relieved.

I have thought of Sasha Winters many times since then, and once heard some eighth grade boys talking about her. My brother heard the weirdest thing about that girl–he heard she was, like, married. The other boys laughed. I’d marry her one of them said. That girl was HOT. It was all anyone ever said about her.

I wonder now, why I didn’t tell my mother, and what would have happened if I had. Maybe I knew my mom would make a big deal out of it; social workers would be called, Sasha brought in for embarrassing, personal questioning. Maybe I thought Sasha was too good for all that, or maybe I thought she’d blame me, hate me. But maybe she was waiting for me to tell. Deep down, hoping I would. I wonder what damage I might have caused by not knowing until it was nearly too late, and not telling when I could have, even after the fact. Maybe I’d have done more harm than good; I’ll never know.
Help me, she had said. I am ashamed that what bothers me is not that I could have saved her, but that I’ll never know if she wanted to be saved.

For Goodness’ Sake

I wrote this for a contest in Real Simple a year ago, and then forgot to send it. The question was: when did you truly know you were a grown-up? This is a tribute to my mom.

My grandmother stood by a window in her retirement community, on the assisted living floor, her gnarled hands clutching her walker. Yes, tennis balls on the bottom, and yes, a little calico bag on the front to hold magazines she could no longer read. She was wearing a floral summer skirt with plaid winter pants underneath, a green woolen blazer that had been her father’s, and her pajama top. The nurses had given up telling Dorothy Rinehart what to wear. She’d been waiting for me, like so many other “white heads,” as she called them (though her own hair was white as snow), who were waiting for a visitor, or else for the shuttle bus that would take them to the drug store.

When I came inside, she clutched my still-young hand in her freakishly strong one, and immediately began to tell me how her room was too cold and the food was terrible and the nurses were stealing from her. Specifically, her bras. She was convinced that the nurses in this lovely, expensive retirement community were stealing her underwear and bras. Probably wearing them when they went “out on the town.” I listened, because I’d learned that trying to make her see things as they really were was pointless, and all she really needed was somebody she trusted to listen. Eventually, she would let out a big sigh and change the subject.

But on this Saturday in September, she did not change the subject. To my horror, she cried. She’d never done that before. And they weren’t the tears of a senile old lady, confused or tearing up about stolen brassieres: for a moment, she was completely lucid. “I miss her so much,” she said. She was talking about my mother, who had died two years before in an accident. She’d been hit by a bus; all the more horrific because it was so Chaplinesque; the way a minor character dies in a bad comedy. My mom was only 54, and she was vacationing with my father. It was sudden, tragic, and as devastating as anything could possibly be for our family.

That is why, on a beautiful fall Saturday when I didn’t have to be at work, I was at a nursing home, where I would listen to my grandma talk for a while, then take her out for lunch, and return to her apartment to clean up and check her supply of Depends. My sister and I did this every weekend, because my mom couldn’t. We also went to see my now-single dad more; left soups and casseroles in his fridge, dropped in on him at work, and called him every single night.

My grandma and I talked for a while about my mom; about what a “character” she was. Our perspectives were so different: my grandma spoke of how my mom had been so mischievous as a girl; how she could outrun all the boys, how she was a better dancer than “all of them,” even little Nancy Spencer, who’d had lessons. And how brave she’d been to marry my father, a weapons officer on his way to his second tour inVietnam, and

how strong she’d been when I’d had terrible asthma as a child. (It was the ’70s. There was some talk of having me live in a bubble, literally, to which my mother said something like Oh, fiddlesticks! I’ll have her get some exercise and learn to play a wind instrument, and she’ll be fine. And I was.)

Mostly I listened, assimilating this version of my mother into the one I had of the feisty, funny secretary who loved her morning coffee, sang too loudly in church, sewed every school play costume I ever wore (as well as my clothes, until sixth grade, when I begged her to stop), played a fabulous game of racquetball, and was my biggest fan. I still missed her, too, and wore a blanket of grief around my shoulders constantly. Back then it was so heavy, I could scarcely lift my head.

After a while, I noticed that we were still inside. An hour had passed, and it was beautiful outside. “C’mon, Grandma,” I said. “For goodness’ sake, come outside and get some sunshine.” That was it: my moment. I knew absolutely, right then and there, that I was a grown up. I was twenty-seven and married with a baby on the way. By all rights I had been an adult for several years. But the prosperity of our culture allows most of us an extended adolescence, in which we work and play and decide what we want to become, and until my mother’s death I was in that miasma of my twenties. I did not realize I’d become an adult until I uttered the same words my mom used often on my sister and me, when some childhood drama had upset us. She’d let us have a good cry or tantrum, and then she’d say for goodness’ sake, come outside and get some sunshine. If it wasn’t sunny, she’d say for goodness’ sake, dry your eyes and help me with the salad, or for goodness’ sake, let’s bake some bread.

She really believed in this force called Goodness. She believed in God, too, but more apparent to me was her belief in noticing what is good and pointing it out for others, especially others who were hurting. It didn’t matter if it was a childhood pain or an adult pain. I can remember her comforting a neighbor I played with, Libby Landry, when her Easy-Bake Oven broke and we all knew that her parents could not afford to replace it. I can remember her comforting another neighbor, years later, when she’d just heard her husband’s diagnosis of cancer. There was the time I didn’t get the part of Daisy Mae in my high-school production of “Lil’ Abner,” the time I didn’t get the teaching job that a fancy private school had all but promised me, and all the less-than-perfect grades, deceased pets, and unrequited crushes in between.

My mom was a comforter, always pointing her friends and neighbors toward what was good or might offer them hope or comfort: a cup of tea, a walk in the fresh air, the comfort of some tangible act of labor like baking bread. It wasn’t in the absent there, there way of a stout English nanny or a character in a Rosemund Pilcher novel, either; her advice was that of a true friend who sees you are drowning in quicksand, and doesn’t say take it easy, but instead says I’ll get a rope. I learned to say For goodness’ sake… so well that I could say it to myself, speaking in the royal “we.” It served me well when I lost the baby, when I was home with two babies only a year apart, when my husband left me eight months pregnant with a fourth baby to go fight in a war, and many times since. To be able to get up, to breathe, to put one foot in front of the other and do some small thing, and eventually to reach out to others, is a life-preserver in a storm.

That was my mom’s legacy to me: that belief in moving forward; in going out into the sunshine for the sake of its goodness and for goodness’ sake. Stuff happens. Life hurts. You grieve, you mourn, you shout or rail against the heavens, but then, when you are a grown up, you step out of yourself and serve others in any little old way you are able. You drag them out into the sunshine, and if you cannot say Follow me, you say, C’mon, we will do this together.

So as I let my grandma take my arm (my mother taught me that, too: you never take an old person’s arm, you let them take yours), and walked slowly with her out into the fall air, I knew I had crossed that threshold into the land of grown-ups. A land where you try—you at least try, for goodness’ sake—to put others before yourself. A land where you notice the small, good things. Sunsets. Brisk walks in the fresh air. The deep purple of a perfect eggplant, even if you don’t especially like eggplant. The sturdy legs of toddlers, holding their mother’s hand; your own kids laughing. Homemade bread. You notice them, and you try to help others see them too. I was a little sorry to have left the land of childhood, but I would do okay here. I had a good teacher.

 

 

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