Author Archives: Lisa Williamson Rosenberg

Orca: A Colonization Allegory from a few Years Back

Today Facebook showed me a “memory” which I had completely forgotten. On this day in 2015, I learned that the only flash-fiction piece I’ve ever written, “Orca,” was a semifinalist in the New Millennium Short Fiction Contest. I had written it on a whim, thinking about the story of Tilikum, the famed Orca from SeaWorld who, in 2010, had snapped and killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau) and the 2013 documentary Blackfish which raised awareness about the abuse of these magnificent creatures. The whales’ plight has clear parallels to human oppression past and present. But I liked the story and wanted to share. I named my f-bomb dropping fictional Orca “Jonah.”

Orca

A Story from 2015

I swear I never planned it. I just had this idea that maybe I could make this day less of a suckfest than the ones before.

He’s on the edge of the platform, waving at the masses like they do, one slick, black flipper sticking out just enough. So I go for it. I grab his foot along with the rest of him in my teeth—one smooth pass, a rush of energy and the thrill of giving in to impulse. My heart beats in rhythm to the filtration pump, all twelve thousand pounds of me humming with possibility. And for one moment, this stale, lukewarm tank—chemically treated water, manmade current, synthetic seaweed—is enough. But here’s the wall, too soon like always. I flip and evade just before impact.

I can’t break out of here, but I can give the crowd a taste of my will. Look at me, assholes! High on my own will. It’s what keeps me from going nuts like poor old Thomas, who swims in circles all day, chasing imaginary seals.

Thomas is not his real name. He’s Naylu to the Humans, who like our names tribal-sounding and exotic—Naylu, Le’molo, Wailele.  At sea no one needs names. You’ve got instinct to tell you who you are, who you love, who to watch out for. Humans name us so they can tell us apart and more completely own us. We weigh what we weigh; they weigh what they weigh, yet we belong to them. Humans made this tank, brought in our mothers and fathers, forced them to breed amid the dank and scum. And if you think those of us born inside don’t have sea-instinct, that we don’t miss what we’ve never known, you’re wrong.

But names, yeah. I came up with the idea to take our own names—their kind of names, just for the irony. We stole the names of trainers who left and haven’t come back. There’s Thomas, the oldest, the only one born at sea—the psycho on permanent seal patrol. Then there’s Ed, Kathy, Mike, Liz and me, Jonah. Last is Allison, beautiful Allison.

The water caresses my skin as I move, prize on display. I’m calm and happy just this once, like I’ve never been before—not even that time with Allison, because we were forced together in that cramped shithole of a medical pool. Yeah, we both wanted it, but the Humans wanted it too and it was their wanting it—not ours—that made it happen. This moment is mine. As long as I have this guy by the flipper, I’m free.

My tankmates, Ed and Mike, cheer me on, Dude! Go! Wishing they’d thought of it first. Crazy Thomas goes swirling round and round, slapping with his tail, signaling his glee. But Allison trembles from the shadows, guessing how it’s all going to go down. She intuits things.  All the cows do, but Allison does it best.

Like what happened to the calf. Allison knew, before she saw the transport ropes, that they were going to take her baby. She went up on the platform, rocking and slamming her tail in protest. I never saw a cow act like that. After the calf was gone, Allison kept on going. She kept swimming, leaping, doing tricks for mackerel just like the rest of us. But her eyes were hollowed out and frightening. They’d lost their light.

Vengeance. Malice. Psychosis. These words will come up one day when the experts and activists try to explain my actions. But I’m not doing this for Allison. I’m not doing it because I’m tired of being penned in, or because of the calf, or the indignity of being named after a fucking seashell. I’m doing this because I can.  

Liz signals to me that I should cut the crap and let the guy go, and Kathy sounds, Jonah, you’re going to get busted!  Buzz kills. Eat my dorsal fin. Allison stays deep down, watching. I think maybe she’ll join me. I’ll toss him to her, see if I can bring back the shine to her eyes.

But first I take him up to the surface for a spell to show the crowd I don’t mean any harm. I keep his foot in my teeth, but we hang out. I let him breathe. Humans don’t have blowholes like we do; they breathe some other way that takes longer. So I give him time to get plenty of air in him, then take him back under.

The calf was beautiful, I remember. It was the first time I ever watched one come out into the world. Allison was cool with me watching. If it had been Thomas or even Ed, she’d have been scared they’d eat her baby or some wacko shit, but not me. I’m the one she could trust.

I was moved outside the tank as soon as she delivered, but she could hear me signaling that I was there and that everything was okay. The calf was small and perfect, just like Allison, but everyone said her little saddle patches looked like mine. Her eyes were bright and clear and so round. She stayed right up close to Allison, like a tiny shadow. Caught on right away how to swim and make it up to the surface. I just stared, blown away by this miracle that took place right in our own piss pot of a tank, so far from the real sea.

I let the guy up one more time—not for so long, though. I’m getting antsy. I dive back down and find Allison. She’s still in the darkest corner of the main tank. I shake my head back and forth, showing off what I have, but feeling desperate. I need her to play my game. Hey, Allison, take a turn. I let him go for a second, nose him in her direction. Come on, live a little. But she turns away. And now the guy is making for the surface like a bullet. Which pisses me off. This time it’s not so playful when I take him; I’m out of patience. I chomp on his body. Probably with more force than I should, but I’m past giving a shit. I swim with him back to Allison. Her eyes stay vacant. She signals: What can you possibly want from me?

 So I leave her alone, the guy’s limp body still in my teeth.  

That day, the day Allison’s calf was born, I remember thinking, I’m going to take that little girl out of here. Someday, somehow. Me and her and Allison, we’re getting out. Which I know was a crazy thought, because where the hell is out?  Old Thomas says when he was first captured, he lived in a sea-pen. There was the ocean, he says, and right next to it was his pen, just a thin net separating him from the wide open. So the water he lived in was real, one hundred percent, pure, blue seawater. One day some guys in a boat cut the net and a couple of the other whales escaped. Not Thomas; he was nuts even then, had agoraphobia or something. Anyway our tanks aren’t like that; they’re closed-off concrete and thick, high-tech acrylic, miles from the sea. Still, the calf made me want to find it.

When it’s over, it’s over fast. I barely know what’s happened. I’m taken out. Out of the shows, out of the main tank, kept in solitary. Specialists come and test me, over and over again, for months and months, trying to figure out just what went wrong. A couple of times I think I hear whale song. Allison, crying for the calf that got taken away before she was weaned, crying for me. That would be something, right?  But I’m wrong. It’s just my own signals, bouncing off the concrete.  

Trainers still come by now and then to check on me and say “hey.”  So what I do is wait.

A Mixed Marriage in 1950

Re-posting in honor of #LovingDay2021

This appeared on my blog about 11 years ago, when Mom was still alive. Thinking about them both today and wanted to re-share their story. #LovingDay #lovingday2021

My Parents Sometime in the Mid-sixties

People wonder, and I’ve often asked myself: if my father was so involved with black culture, black politics, the survival and advancement of black people, then why did he marry a white woman?  He actually died before he could explain that in his memoir (believe me, I’ve scoured the various revisions) so I’ve had to come up with answers myself.  The best I can do is the following.  He didn’t marry a white woman; he married my mother.  He married someone who would be his student, his supporter and his best audience.  Not that she’d never challenge him, but I do believe that at first, and perhaps for many years, she hung on his every word.

Though he stood just five foot eight and always looked much younger than he was, my father carried himself with an air of great importance.  His deep voice, eloquence and measured way of speaking demanded respect.  When he made an entrance, strangers would rack their brains and snap their fingers, whispering: “Oh, that’s—that’s … who is that guy again?”

Of course he wasn’t famous, but everyone thought he was and he never disabused people of the notion.  I believe that my mother was the only woman—black, white or otherwise—who could have put up with all that.

In part, my mother’s tolerance was due to a childhood spent in the shadow of her own mother’s pathological narcissism.  My maternal grandmother had been the leading lady of her own world, her daughters, little more than stage-hands.  If ever my mother brought home a boy, my grandmother would flirt with him and later ask, Well?  What did he say about me?   Naturally, before meeting the guy, my grandmother would have asked the compulsory “is he Jewish?” which, prior to my dad, he always was.

My mother had been a very good girl all her life and had gotten no credit for it.  I imagine there was no better way to stick it to my grandmother than marrying a black man—completely unheard of for a nice Jewish girl in 1950.  She’d married my father for the rebellion of it, but also for the excitement.  She knew she was along for the ride of her life and therefore didn’t mind being off to the side while my father took center stage.

Their marriage wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was pretty good—all things considered—and lasted forty-five years, until the end of my dad’s life.

They married at the tender ages of twenty-three and twenty-six, in Chicago: a small wedding held in my paternal grandparents’ house.  In attendance were my father’s whole family, the younger members of my mother’s family, and their closest friends.  My father’s parents had embraced and accepted my mother from the beginning, though her parents would remain in the dark until the young couple had safely arrived in New York City—where they’d moved for my father’s political work.  My mother called her parents from Penn Station to announce her new marital status. (Oh and did I mention: he’s black?)  There had been no thought to invite them to the wedding, nor any possibility of bringing my father home in advance to meet his future in-laws.

My mother was thus cut off from her parents, informally disowned.  For the act of marrying such a man (a gentile as well as a schvartze), my mother got blamed for every evil that subsequently befell the family, including the death of her beloved Uncle Julius.  Somehow no one managed to connect the dots from his daily consumption of creamed soups to the clogging of his arteries and ultimate heart attack.  (Nah.  Must have been the black guy.)

So there she was, twenty-three years old, alone with her dynamic new husband in New York City—no family, no friends—far from everything familiar to her.

They found an apartment in Brooklyn.  My mother was the one who scoped out all their potential homes, for obvious reasons.  She’d meet each landlord, say her husband was at work, and get the tour of everything they could afford.  The landlord of the place she chose wouldn’t learn my father was black until moving day, and by then it was too late to reject them.  In any case, it took only a few weeks to recognize that my parents were a lovely young couple in every sense of the word, regardless of color.

That happened a lot with my father.  People who rejected his race flat out—who really believed blacks to be the scourge of this country—had a way of accepting my father as “one of the good ones.”  He was familiar with the comment “if all black people were like you …”  This never flattered or impressed my father; it just revealed the character of the person making the statement.  My father believed a racist was a racist.  Still, they needed a place to live.

My mother found a job teaching at the Brooklyn Community School where, gradually, she began to make her own friends.  Soon my parents were established in a community of their own.  Their friends were young, smart, black, Jewish or both.  Many of these friendships would last through the era of my childhood (which wouldn’t begin until the sixties).

So New York became less strange, more like home.  In some ways it was more comfortable than the Chicago my mother had known.  Being Jewish was safer, for example.  My mother was accustomed to being discreet about it, letting people think that Rosen (her maiden name) was German.  Growing up, she’d been chased and beaten up, called a “dirty Jew” on numerous occasions.  Part of her Jewish identity was—is—forever connected to the fear of being attacked.  She’d heaved a sigh of relief, I think, in taking my father’s name and becoming a Williamson.  It was less about shame than safety.  There was some pride in being Jewish, too.  My mother has described the feeling of surprise and delight at finding herself in an environment where you could say “knish” and other people would know what you were talking about.

So another piece of my parents’ bond was the experience of being hated, truly hated.  While my mother could hide, to a degree, among gentiles—the way my father could not among whites—they both knew what it was to be far outside the majority.  That feeling of paranoia, which isn’t paranoia at all because you’re not imagining it.

And once united, my parents shared the new experience of being an interracial couple—living with all that it meant to people who saw them together.  In Chicago, they’d been chased by thugs with baseball bats.  In New York, some frowned, some smiled in solidarity, some simply stared, but then went on with their own lives.

Book Recs: Little Gods and Negative Space: Unearthing Parental Stories

It must have been kismet which dictated that my copy of Negative Space, Lilly Dancyger’s spellbinding memoir, would arrive in the mail the day I finished reading Little Gods, the haunting novel by Meng Jin. There is a theme uniting these two powerful works: that of a young woman determined to understand the truth about a parent taken from them as a child.

Little Gods is the story of Su Lan, a brilliant, passionate, and enigmatic physicist whose traumatic past curtails what should be a life of professional success. While Su Lan is the center of the book, she is the only main character who does not get a viewpoint in the narration. Instead, the reader must splice together a portrait of the woman from the impressions of her friend and neighbor, Zhu Wen, and the two men who adore her: Zhang Bo and Liya’s father, Yongzong.

But this is also the story of Liya, born in Beijing in the hospital nearest to Tiananmen Square on the very night of the massacre on June 4, 1989. Her father, Su Lan’s husband, disappears the same night. While Liya is growing up, first in Shanghai and later in the United States, Su Lan, a temperamental, often depressed mother, never speaks of him and Liya knows better than to ask questions.

Only when Liya is eighteen and returns to China with her mother’s ashes, does she attempt to uncover her father’s identity along with other secrets of her mother’s past. The book is beautifully written, tragic, heartbreaking—everything a therapist like myself loves in a novel. Meng expertly weaves in details about politics, history, gender dynamics and the meaning of transcending socioeconomic class.

I found even more to love in Negative Space, in part because I grew up in New York City, spent time in Dancyger’s stomping grounds in the East Village, took ballet at the Joffrey School, and also grew up surrounded by the art of my father and his friends. Like Dancyger, I was not allowed coloring books, because my father, like hers believed in setting the imagination free to create without premanufactured lines.

And Dancyger’s creative spirit shows up on every page. This memoir is so engaging because of the author’s graceful and gripping use of language, her candor about the emotional rollercoaster she rode in the process of manifesting her father’s memory. Dancyger allows us to get so close to her experience, to herself, I could not put it down. I was drawn in by each character—her father, his friends, her mother, Lilly herself at every age and incarnation—as if this were a work of fiction, and I mean that in the best way.

I know from Dancyger’s acknowledgments that there were editors who recommended she leave out the photographs of her father’s sketches and sculptures, but they added so much dimension, immersing me in his character as he crystalized for Dancyger herself.

Dancyger’s father was at once a devoted, loving hero of a dad and a heroin addict. The author never dodges the coexistence of these twin facts. She draws herself, her childhood, her adolescence and overall daughterhood in vivid strokes, weaving in humor and joy along with the trauma.

I highly recommend both books—read as companions in theme, or whenever you get the chance, in any order.

Missing the Smile Behind your Mask

Even before the pandemic, I sometimes went days—weeks—without interacting with another adult who was not my husband or one of my psychotherapy clients. On the coldest winter days, even the neighbors I sometimes chatted with, met to walk dogs with, or invited over for a quick coffee would hole up and disappear. We’d call or text each other: “When it gets warm, let’s walk.” “When this snow melts …” “When our kids’ college visits are over …” But even then, life sometimes got in the way.

I am a therapist and a writer. My work is isolating, solitary, one-sided. Because I see people professionally, most of whom I truly enjoy, because I am fortunate enough to have a husband who is fun as well as kind, I sometimes get to the point of starving for my friends before I even notice I’m hungry.

The thing that sustains me, the thing that I would argue sustains anyone whose life is sparsely populated, are the daily, incidental interactions with strangers or lightly known acquaintances. A conversation at the grocery store with the young mother who’s trying to shop while managing unruly toddlers. I assure her that it gets better, that my kids were the same at that age. A brief lesson on drain-snaking from the friendly guy who runs the hardware store. A shared laugh with another dog parent as our pups become leash-tangled in effort to sniff one another’s rear ends.

As a sometime introvert, an only child who can tolerate solitude better than most, I once found these social exchanges sufficient to get me through a week. Now they fall short for one reason.

The smiles are gone, concealed by masks. With only your eyes showing, the crinkles at the corners are all I have to guess your mood, your level of appreciation for my dog’s silly antics, whether your return of my greeting is forced or genuine.

In Charles Darwin’s 1872 work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the naturalist describes smiling as something universal to humans across societies, a muscular effort that unites us regardless of creed, class, or culture. Innumerable songs have been written about smiles: whether you’re never fully dressed without one, whether Irish eyes are doing it, or whether the whole world is doing it with you. The first time a baby smiles, it’s nothing short of magic. As much of a puzzle as your newborn’s crying may be—is she gassy? Cold? Wet? Hungry? But an infant’s smile is unequivocal. It says, “I love you.” “I’m happy to be here.” Smiles are versatile little buggers too: We share them, interpret them, grant them to others, and welcome them. Sure, sometimes we fake them, misconstrue them, try to hide them when they emerge at inappropriate moments. But our smiles are always beacons of ourselves. They’re emotional bridges, making us feel seen, acknowledged. When one person returns your smile, it gives you a boost. When another fails to do so, it hurts.

But now when we pass each other on the street, when we come face to face at the grocery store (meaning one of us has neglected to observe the now-fading arrows on the floor), we do so devoid of affect, cut off from one another. We are all masked islands amid the sea of Covid-19. Without in-person smiles, we are starving for one another. I see it in myself, my teenage children, especially in those of my clients who live alone and work from home. We must all toe the line on Zoom-contact, a poor substitute for the three-dimensional expressions we once took for granted.

In my Facebook feed, I recently saw an add selling facemasks with zany smiles painted right on. They were meant to be funny, to compensate for the current lack of in-person grins. But even the reactions these decorative smirks might provoke would be hidden.  

People talk about what they miss about their pre-Covid lives: the travel, the visits with loved ones, the hugs, the movie houses. What I miss most of all are the incidental connections with strangers, reminding me that we’re all in this crazy thing called life together.

Maya Angelou once said, “if you only have one smile in you, give it to the people you love.” I would add that a smile from a stranger just might unearth one you didn’t realize you had to share.

My story, “Coffee Shop” in @LiteraryMama

Posting a little late, but I am very honored to have my short story, “Coffee Shop” published in Literary Mama today! Wonderful working with editor Felicity Landa.

When two isolated Black mothers meet in a Brooklyn coffee shop, just one has hopes for friendship …

https://literarymama.com/articles/departments/2020/11/coffee-shop
Aside

Originally posted on Lisa Williamson Rosenberg:
I know it’s been ages since I’ve blogged. I’m not even going to look at the date of my last post. In any case, I’ve had a much needed hiatus, during which I’ve been…

My (2nd) Prize-Winning Short Story!

Happy Spring!

Tulips

By now, I’ve shared this all over Facebook and Twitter, but I thought I would share it here as well. I have been writing fiction for years, including three (yes, THREE) unpublished novels, one of which landed me a literary agent, thank you!

But, while I’ve published a number of nonfiction essays and one scholarly piece, I’ve never succeeded in having my fiction published until now. At the very last minute, I entered my short story, “The Birthing Room,” into the Fall/Winter Short Fiction contest held by The Piltdown Review and the rest, as they say …

A huge Thank you to Bill Shunn, editor of The Piltdown Review, who was a pleasure to work with.

This story was inspired by my father-in-law’s home in Monterey, Massachusetts, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. There was a legend that a freedom-seeking African American woman died in the house and that her spirit haunts it still. As the only woman of color who ever visited, possibly the only woman of color who had stayed in the house since the 19th Century, I always wondered about that spirit. Who was she? And what in the world would she make of me?

Here is the link to my story, The Birthing Room.

Happy Reading!

 

Tomorrow on Longreads.com

Guess what, guys? I have another story going live in Longreads tomorrow. I am so proud and honored to have my second work published by this amazing online journal. That said, to have this particular piece of work OUT there in the world, on the internet, where anyone–including my psychotherapy clients, including my kids–can read it, fills me with something between jitters and trepidation.

distracted

See, this one is not just a personal essay—it is a really, really, super-duper personal story—that I began in a workshop, inspired by a prompt, with no intention of publishing. Then, editor extraordinaire, Sari Botton, asked to publish it and I said “yes.”

It is the kind of story I read online all the time, admiring the writer’s courage and boldness to say something so private that so many of us can relate to. The difference is that I am a therapist, guardian of my clients’ deepest secrets. Yet here I am, sharing one of my own, hoping readers can connect, even if my experience is alien to them.

This is a story about my body; the story of a journey—actually, a few stories within a story that I am proud to share. Mothers and therapists are also human beings, with human flaws and human solutions.

My clients and kids may not want to read this. Then again, they might. That’s up to them. Either way, I share this personal tale with love, humor and humility.

Stay tuned ❤️

Apartment #17D – An Ode

nick nacks 17DThis is the site of my childhood. Notches on a closet doorway mark my growth. Outside, on the balcony, a dark stain on one brick betrays the spot where Teenage Me hastily stubbed out a cigarette as I saw my father approaching. This apartment has seen my first steps, heard and felt an ocean of my tears, witnessed my friendships and my loves—wholesome, thrilling, sometimes toxic. I said my last goodbye to each of my parents here. For Dad, that was twenty-three years ago. For Mom, it’s been two months.

And now I face the task of packing up, clearing out, cataloging the pieces of our history. The estate sale “specialist” broke it down for me. Everything—every thing—can be placed into one of four categories: Sell, Donate, Trash, and Keep. A simple formula. But wherever I turn, something indispensable catches my eye: An ancient datebook, a ring, the sort of icepack they no longer make. A telegram sent in 1947—my father assuring his mother that he had arrived somewhere safely. I have no idea where or how to start.

We were the Williamsons—Dad, Mom and me. The only family who has ever lived here. Mine is the only childhood these walls have held. The building went up in the late fifties, part of a complex of four red-brick structures with one- and two-bedroom apartments to rent. My parents chose one above their means at the time: A two-bedroom at the end of the hall on the seventeenth floor for two hundred dollars a month. It looked out on the corner of One Hundredth Street and Columbus Avenue, boasting a balcony from which you could see Central Park if you craned your neck. From the dining room window, you had a red-and-orange steam-bath of a sunset in summer; cool, lavender twilights in winter. From one spot behind our dining room table you could gaze past rundown church steeples and the dingy sides of housing projects to catch a glimpse of the Hudson River. Everyone who visited would remark on the view I took for granted.

It took cunning to rent such a place back in the nineteen-fifties. My parents had a system for apartment hunting. Mom would view each place by herself, my father’s long list of preferences and aesthetic requirements in mind. Dad knew about real estate. His parents had owned two homes back in Chicago: One that they rented out, and one where they lived with their sprawling family of children and grandchildren. But Dad could never accompany Mom to view any apartment until she had signed a lease. To rent the apartment of their dreams, my mother needed to present her prime qualification: whiteness. Her husband, she would tell the building manager, was at work—which was true. What was also true, but what she didn’t share at this point, was that her husband was black.

Mel and Lorraine

Mom and Dad moved here ambivalent about children, but not entirely opposed. When they wed in 1950, friends who were interracially married and parenting mix-raced children didn’t recommend it. Their kids were picked on at school, accepted by neither the black kids nor the white kids. No. Best leave well enough alone and enjoy one another without children. My mother was a teacher, surrounded by kids all day long. She claimed that she had no need for her own. Her work taught her all the things that can go wrong with children, the risks of illness and disability, the emotional turmoil they could face in the best of circumstances. Best not, she agreed with my father. Best enjoy the children of friends, to be God parents, to be free. Then Mom turned thirty-nine and changed her mind. “I want one,” she told him. “I want my own.” “Let’s have one then,” Dad replied. And crossed his fingers, hoping for a girl.

Here is another box of photographs, starring me as a newborn, an infant, a toddler. It happened easily considering their ages, the pregnancy, the birth, though my early months were marked by colic. No one slept much until I was at least a year old. But in the pictures of that year, my parents’ faces betray nothing of the challenges, only the joy. In me, in one another, in the life they’d made from scratch. Together they created a joint culture in our home, made of art and music and books. Made of black and Jewish heritage, made of Chicago and New York and Louisiana (from his parents) and Russia (hers). And that was our place.

“You just need to decide what you want,” friends have said. Just. A word offered to simplify, minimize the effort involved. These friends have been supportive, accompanying me to my mother’s place (it hasn’t been Dad’s for twenty-three years), they have washed, folded, tossed and recycled, and again and again, held up some vase or salt box or kitchen tool, eyes questioning.

As my friends exhume relics of our life, as they dust, shine, wash and dry, our dining room table fills with the mismatched decorative pieces—Dutch cookie jars, Egyptian Scarab beads, and Senegalese wooden masks—looking like a life-raft packed with strangers thrown together after a shipwreck.

But through the chaos and clutter, I still see us three, sitting here: Mom to my right, Dad to my left at the head of the table. They trade sections of the New York Times, talking politics over my head.

“That S.O.B.” My mother says, which I know means Nixon. She begins to read aloud, but Dad cuts her off.

“You see? You see?” He sets down the second section of the paper to drum an index finger on the table. “This is the kind of thing I’m talking about.”

Williamsons 1970It was part of an ongoing discussion in which terms like race and fascism and civil rights were thrown around. When the discussions were too intricate, the words became a soft, spring rain on my shoulders, nurturing, soothing. Because even as they ranted, their joint indignation would keep me safe from whatever evils were out there. It’s what I believed unequivocally.

What do I want? I want my parents back. Of course. But I’ll settle for the obvious things, like my mother’s photo diaries, my father’s memoir, his unsold screenplays, his short stories and articles. The sentimental things. My father’s Panama hat—straw with a colorful pink and green band. My mother’s gold chain belt from the seventies. I want the photographs with all three of us together, but also the ones that predate me, documenting those first sixteen years of their marriage. My parents, living it up at the Vanguard in 1952. With friends on the Maine coast in 1954. I want the photographs that date back even further, to the years before they met. My father at the back row of Class 5B at the Willard School. My mother and her little sister at the 1938 Chicago World’s Fair. Dad in the army, Guam World War II. Mom as the Queen of Hearts in the University of Illinois Hillel Stunt Show, 1945.

Time is running out quickly. The place must be emptied by the end of the month. My parents are gone. I live with my husband and children in another state where we are rapidly accumulating our own memories. It’s time for this apartment to hold someone else’s stories.

There is healing in the going-through of my family’s past, in touching each treasure, each building block of our existence. In both hands I cradle a stone water-buffalo that my mother acquired on a trip to China. I breathe life into it for one final second, then set it down for good.

Me 17D

17D CW photo

Image above: me photographing “Nobody Knows My Name” by my father’s friend and mentor, the great Charles White

 

On A Motherless Mother’s Day, Remembering to Heal and to Laugh

mom and me - Copy

You wanted to know how I am—meaning since my loss, since my mother died. I say, “doing okay,” because sometimes I am okay. Sometimes I forget, and life feels normal. I say, “You know, it comes in waves,” meaning grief comes in waves, meaning sometimes it’s sharp and sometimes it’s dull and heavy and sometimes it lifts into nothing.

“Doing okay. You know—it comes in waves.” It is a comfort to me to say this because it sounds healthy. I am being honest, real, but not falling apart. I mean to reassure you. Friends like you distract me, which I appreciate more than you can imagine. Work distracts me. Other people’s lives and problems and needs distract me. If I couldn’t work, if I couldn’t listen, I wouldn’t be back. But I can so I am.

I’m being honest because you asked in a way that I trust. I can tell you care. A lot of people care, a shocking number of people care, which is nice, but which overwhelms me, makes me feel guilty because –What if I forget to acknowledge your caring? What if I forget to express my gratitude?

Because I am forgetting a lot lately, forgetting to manage the things I normally manage with little difficulty, forgetting what day it is. Forgetting who has to be driven where and picked up when and who just saw the orthodontist and cannot eat anything hard for a few days.

Sometimes, like I said, I forget she’s gone. I think I just haven’t called her yet today, that she’s still in her apartment in the city and later, when I’m out walking the dog, I’ll give her a call. Sometimes I do pick up the phone to give her a call. And then I remember.

Sometimes, of course, I am not okay. You know that, I’m sure. Because when I say it comes in waves, meaning grief, I’m referring to the surges. There are times when the weight in my heart is so heavy I cannot remain standing, and collapse on my kitchen floor, literally. I make sure one is around then but the dog, who comes and licks my tears away. Sometimes, there are too many tears to lick, and my face winds up a swimming mess of sorrow and dog drool.

Sometimes I think: how is it possible for me to be here on this earth, when there is no longer her? She has always been here in my life, since my first breath. Before.

And there is the sadness about my father too—whom we lost twenty-three years ago.  Not that I’m mourning him again, just mourning them together. My parents as a unit. Of our small family—just us three—no one is left but me.

Still, I am lucky. I have so much of them left: photographs, manuscripts, letters, mementos. Works of art that Dad created with Mom as his muse. A book about Brooklyn that Mom wrote and Dad illustrated for the children in one of her first-grade classes.

My mother was a story teller, as you well know. Over the years, she’s told me the stories of their life together before me. The sixteen years that they were Mel and Lorraine, before we were The Williamsons. In recent weeks, going through her apartment, sorting her endless things, I’ve unearthed boxes photographs that accompany the old, before-Lisa stories. One crumbling envelope reveals the trip to Maine where there were fresh blueberries and cream every morning. Another holds their trip up the coast where they tried to cook out on the beach and were assaulted by bees. Here are the gatherings at their first apartment, in Flatbush. Lola and Sam’s wedding. A waiter at the Vanguard in 1951.

My favorite photograph is a later one from a trip to Barbados when I was already out of college. This is how I remember them best together, smiling, free to enjoy one another and life. And me. I make an imprint of this image on a scrim inside my mind, bringing it up during those moments when I need them.

mom and dad jamaica Continue reading