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Food, Catholics, and Prostitute Walks: Stories of my family

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A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Arts
Emily Jo Murdock
Dr. Priscilla Riggle, Thesis Advisor
Department of English and Linguistics
Kirksville, Missouri
UMI Number: 1486154
All rights reserved
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
Dissertation Publishing
UMI 1486154
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Student';3 Name
Specific Program Title
Emily Murdock
Master of Arts in English
The signatures of the Thesis Committee appearing below indicate that
the thesis is complete and correct in every aspect, with all changes
made to the satisfaction of the Committee.
Committee Members
Committee Chairperson, Dr. Priscilla Riggle
Committee Member, Dr. Cole Woodcox
Committee Member, ©r. Diane Johnson
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Department Chair, Dr. Cole Woodcox
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Dean of Graduate Studies, Dr^krtaVDi Stefano
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This book is dedicated to my various families. You have all been there for me in your
own unique ways, whether or not I wanted you to.
I would like to thank Dr. Priscilla Riggle for not only reading every draft of every story in
this thesis, but for reading every draft of everything I've written in the last four years. You're
probably glad I'm graduating.
An Abstract of the Thesis by
Emily Murdock
This collection of stories explores what it means to be part of a family—the good, the
bad, and the ugly. It also taps into food writing as a sub-genre, and the work considers how food
and family relate to each other. This thesis consists of autobiographical moments from
childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. As a whole, it presents intimate snapshots of
personal struggle and personal joy along with broader questions about what it means to be a
daughter, a grand-daughter, a sister, and how those relationships are not always defined easily.
"They say that blood is thicker than water. Maybe that's why we battle
our own with more energy and gusto than we would ever expend on
David Assael
Family writing has intrigued me ever since I stumbled upon Anna Quindlen's collection
of columns in the book Loud and Clear. As a stay-at-home mother, Quindlen wrote about her
family simply because she couldn't think of anything else to write about—her family consumed
her life. I relate to that idea, although not in the same way; I'm neither a wife nor a mother, so I
never feel responsible for holding a family together like Quindlen did. Instead I have always felt
like I am part of something strange and interesting and sublimely unique. Due to my parents'
marriages and subsequent divorces, I have numerous families, and they are all exceptional, but
one commonality is that they can all be all-consuming. While I was growing up my friends
always revered me for having five Christmases, yet I was often overwhelmed and exhausted by
all of the familial expectations. That feeling has not changed as I've gotten older.
The idea of family connection and disconnection has always been interesting to me, even
before I had the words to articulate it. With divorced parents, it's not difficult to figure out how
to play the game according to the rules of each family, although it can be daunting to have a
different set of expectations and regulations at each home.
It seemed natural to explore this tension between connection and disconnection in my
writing since I had spent most of my childhood and adolescence navigating between families. It
is only now in my young adulthood that I am able to explore that tension in a more meaningful
way since I have outgrown my childhood confusion and my teenage angst.
Food comes up in my writing a lot because food, like family, is a fundamental part of
being human. They can both nourish you and they can both make you sick. When food writing
forerunner M.F.K. Fisher was asked "Why food writing?" she simply replied, "I am hungry"
(vii). I suppose I am, too.
I read Women who Eat, an anthology of food writing by female authors, my junior year of
college and I was never the same again. I loved how the authors described food and discussed it
with such reverence and awe. I also loved the challenge of putting something so elusive as tastes
and smells into words. Food connects all of us, and it seems that many families express their
feelings with food. For instance, my father rarely tells me he loves me, but he always makes
chicken salad for me when I come back to Kirksville. Food is often easier to digest than words,
after all.
I think a family's value system is evident through the food they prepare and how they
prepare it. My stepmother's family holds tight to tradition, and so they preserve and prepare the
foods their parents and grandparents did (although no one makes egg noodles from scratch
anymore). My father also connects food to memory, and he often uses the cookbook that his
deceased mother gave him when he moved out. She was afraid he would starve to death, but
instead he mastered a dozen dishes that still show up at our dinner table. In short, as soon as I
embarked upon this project, it was clear to me that I could not separate my memories of family
with my memories of food—they are interconnected in my life and are therefore interconnected
in this work.
Writing family stories is a lot like flipping through a scrapbook. You can look at a photo
forever, but you'll rarely remember exactly what was happening or exactly what you were
talking about. The same is true of family writing—you can write a story but you'll never capture
the entire complexity of human relationships nor will you recall the context for every
conversation. You just take the photo and place it in a book so that you can return to it later. My
writing has always been image-oriented, so it makes sense that I think of stories in terms of
pictures. Along with the emphasis on image, I tend to stick with a nonlinear style since that's
how memories form—a moment here and a moment there. While everything I have ever read
has contributed to the writing of this work, the only story that I specifically modeled after a preexisting piece is "The Value of a Prostitute Walk," which is shaped like Sandra Cisneros' The
House on Mango Street. The rest are original in their form.
The biggest challenge with writing creatively about my family was dealing with the
inaccuracy of memory. Truth in creative nonfiction is always a sticky situation. While I admit
that I did not transcribe events exactly as they happened, I did transcribe events as I recall them.
But again, many memories are clouded by the confusion and anger of youth. Still, I don't
believe that makes the feelings any less legitimate or the stories less worthwhile. I hold fast to
the idea that there is a difference between truth and a spirit of truthfulness. I know I will never
replicate an incident exactly, but I always write about them with a spirit of truthfulness. Mary
Karr describes it best in her book Lit. When discussing how she distrusts her memory through
the years, she writes: "No doubt [I] projected as many pixels onto the world's screen as [I] took
in. So while I trust the stories I recall in broad outline, their interpretation through my old self is
suspect...When I reach to grasp a solid truth from that time, smoke pours through my fingers"
In a similar vein, I think the most difficult part of family writing is deciding how much
liberty you have to write about a person or an event. There were some stories I did not record
because I did not feel they were mine to tell. All of the stories are from my point of view
because I did not want to presume to know how others view certain situations. I also wanted to
stay away from stories based on hearsay. However, a large part of family stories are always
based on gossip and legend, so it was difficult to eliminate it entirely.
To deal with this issue, I read up on other family writers, especially Isabel Allende and
David Sedaris. Both admitted that their families did not always appreciate being written about,
but neither of them seemed to care that much. In the end, I decided I had to write as I
remembered and not worry about the consequences. I think that's what all creative nonfictionists
do—otherwise they would be writing fiction.
What I hope readers take away from these stories is a connection with their own family
experiences. One of the most fascinating aspects of being a part of a family is figuring out how
you play a version of yourself with different people, and I noticed that each story I've written is
narrated by me, but the "me" that is portrayed is always different. Even though I never
attempted to universalize my experiences in these essays, I believe readers will relate to different
elements of each story since many of the themes are universal, like death and loss of innocence.
While this work explores both connection and disconnection between people, I trust that my
audience will discover a link between their family lives and mine. After all, reading and writing
about family is cheaper than therapy.
Works Cited
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York, NY: Vintage, 1991.
Karr, Mary. Lit. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2009.
Quindlen, Anna. Loud and Clear. New York, NY: Random House, 2004.
Women who Eat. Ed. Leslie Miller. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2003.
Works Consulted
Allende, Isabel. Paula. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1995.
—. The Sum of Our Days. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2008.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York, NY: Random House, 2005
Fisher, M.F.K. The Gastronomical Me. New York, NY: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943.
Powell, Julie. Julie and Julia. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2005
Root, Robert. The Nonfictionist's Guide. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.
Sedaris David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 2000.
Trumbore, Anne. "Spite." The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 2. Ed. Lee Gutkind. New
York, NY: 2008.
The Value of a Prostitute Walk and Other Lessons
My Skirt Doesn't Fit Like the Other Girls'
My skirt doesn't fit like the other girls' do. Mine is really tight in the hips
and they all have room to move around and tuck in their shirt. I tuck my shirt in
all the time because otherwise I have to pray with Sr. Virginia during recess
while she tells me about why it's important for girls to always look neat and tidy.
I tell her I try to keep it tucked in but it just won't stay. She tells me God doesn't
want to hear excuses.
I don't really know why my skirt doesn't work. I was so excited to finally
get to wear skirts because you have to wear jumpers until you're in fifth grade
and nobody wants to wear a jumper because you feel like such a baby. Now I'm
supposed to be growing up and I even have my skirt to prove it, though it sticks
out in funny places. Everybody else's just goes straight down and their hems
don't swish when they walk.
My sister told me that I walk like a prostitute. She said that'll come in
handy when I'm in high school. I told her my skirt doesn't fit right and she said,
of course it doesn't. You have an hour-glass figure and those skirts were meant
for narrow figures. I say, what's an hour-glass figure? She says, it means you're
voluptuous. I didn't really know what that word meant but I didn't want to tell
her so because I think it means something with sex and I don't want her to know
I don't know. But I did tell her that I'm only eleven and I don't think I'm
allowed to have an hour-glass anything and that I don't want to walk like a
prostitute. I hope my dad doesn't find out I'm voluptuous. I think he'd get mad.
I think that everything would be easier if I were blonde. I've never met a
blonde who didn't look happy. They're always on TV and in magazines and I
was thinking that maybe it's because they have yellow hair while I'm stuck with
orange. I read Anne of Green Gables last week and she had red hair, and she
was called Carrot Top. At least I don't get called names because of my hair. In
the story she had to wait until she was a grown-up to have her orange hair turn
to a better color. I don't want to wait that long. I told Mom that I wanted to dye
my hair blonde. She said I was too young for that.
I ask my mother every day for the next two weeks if I can dye my hair and
finally she gets so frustrated that she grounds me, but then I'm in the house even
more, so I just keep asking her and finally she says I could get highlights if I
don't say anything else about it. I say ok and I am positive that I'm going to be a
new person.
When we get to the beauty shop I meet Katie who is going to make me
blonde. She says, you have beautiful hair. Why would you want to change this?
And I say, it's orange.
I have to sit in a big red chair while she puts foil all around my head. That
takes forever. And it makes me look like a satellite dish. After that I have to sit
under a huge hair dryer and it burns my skin and makes my face all itchy. Katie
says I have to stay there at least twenty minutes. I tell her I have to go to the
bathroom and she says I have to wait eighteen minutes. I didn't think that
getting blonde would be so hard.
When the twenty minutes are u p I sit in the big red chair again and she
takes out all the foil, but I keep my eyes closed because I want to see the blonde
all at once and not bit by bit. Finally Katie says, okay, you can open. And I
look.. .and I look.. .and I see.. .orange. Why isn't it blonde, I ask, and she says it
was only highlights and they don't completely change your hair, they just give
blonde streaks.
I cry all the way home because I still have orange hair. Mom yells all the
way home because she just spent seventy-five dollars on the highlights that I'm
crying over.
Grandma Millie's Funeral
My grandma just died, but I didn't really know her because she lives in
Kansas and I live in Missouri and I only see her at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
At first I'm sad that she died and that Dad's mom is gone, and then I remember
that I'm supposed to go to my friend Megan's house for a slumber party the
night before the funeral. Then I'm sad that she's dead and that I have to miss the
I asked Mom if I could skip the funeral and stay at Megan's instead since
all my friends are staying all day. Megan's family lives on a farm and they have
dogs, cats, ferrets, and a pig. Plus she has a trampoline and a pool and a swing
set and a creek behind her house. The funeral would just have lots of old people
and I didn't really know my grandma that well anyway. Mom says no and that
it's a very inconsiderate question and that I should be ashamed of myself. But
I'm not ashamed. I'm just sad that I won't get to see the pig and instead I'll have
to eat casseroles and jell-o with lots of old people.
My entire class has to get First Reconciliation. Mrs. Spencer says we all
have to do this so we can be ready to have First Communion in the last quarter of
school. Reconciliation means confession and that means you talk to a priest and
tell him your sins and then he gives you a punishment. My aunt Kathy said that
once a priest made her say the entire rosary. She must have been really bad
because the rosary is really long. I know because I wore it as a necklace one day
and it went all the way down to my waist. Then Aunt Kathy yelled at me and
said, you're not supposed to wear sacred vessels of prayer as fashion accessories.
When it's time for everyone's Reconciliation, we stand in line
alphabetically. I'm glad that my last name starts with M because I'm almost at
the end of the line and I'm glad that Ashtan Bruders has to go first because I
don't like her very much. While I'm waiting I'm thinking off all the sins I'm
going to tell the priest. I hit my sister, I talked back to my mom, I said the word
"shit," and.. .and.. .and I can't think of any more. I decide that these are pretty
boring sins and that I should make up some better ones because I want to have
the best sins out of the entire class. I try to think of something more interesting,
but it's my turn and I have to go inside to see Father Saale. I sit right beside him.
Bless me Father for I have sinned, this is my First Reconciliation, I say just
like Mrs. Spencer told us to. What sins have you committed, he asks and I think
real hard to come up with a good one. I have coveted my neighbor's wife, I
announce proudly. Father Saale tilts his head and his eyebrows bunch up. You
did what, he asks and I say again, this time louder, I have coveted my neighbor's
Do you know what that means, he questions. I shake my head. Why
would you admit to committing a sin that you don't even understand, he asks.
Then I get so fed up with the whole thing that I just tell him my real sins and
how boring they are and how I wanted to have really good ones. He laughs a
little bit and then he says that there are no boring sins in the eyes of God and he
wants to know if I'm sorry both for my real sins and for making up fake ones. I
say yes even though I'm not really sorry I made up new sins. I'm just sorry they
didn't work. Father Saale says I have to pray two Hail Mary's and one Our
Father and I'm happy that I don't have to say the whole rosary.
Happy Pills
I don't tell Mom this, but sometimes I'm afraid to leave her when I go to
Dad's house for the weekend. She gets really bored because she doesn't have
anybody to play with and last time I came home she had pulled up all the carpet
in the house because she said she wanted to see what kind of floor is underneath.
I tell her maybe she should take another pill.
She's been taking a lot of pills lately. She calls them her happy pills. I'm
glad she has them because she's a lot nicer now than she was before. She used to
sleep a lot and yell a lot and I had to learn how to cook dinner, but I was afraid of
our oven because it had been on fire before, so I made peanut butter and toast
because I wasn't afraid of the toaster. But I got really tired of peanut butter and
toast and now I don't eat it.
Mom just got a new boyfriend. His name is Steve and he's an electrician
and I think he wears a toupee. I ask Mom about it and she says not to be rude
and I say really snotty, well maybe I should take one of your happy pills and she
sends me to my room until I can behave. Which could be years.
First Communion
Everybody in my school gets their First Communion in second grade. We
take special classes for weeks and we make chalices in art class. Mrs. Spencer
says that the First Communion is a very important day because it's the day that
you're initiated into the Catholic faith. I don't really know what initiated means,
but I don't ask because I'm afraid I'll look stupid. Mrs. Spencer says that we
need to be sure to take communion correctly because the entire congregation will
be present. I also don't know what congregation means, but I decide not to ask
about that either. She says that our behavior at church and our reception of the
Eucharist reflects on her as our teacher. I do know what Eucharist means
because we learned about it in our special class. It means the Body of Christ.
Mrs. Spencer makes us practice getting communion. We all stand in a long line
and we walk up to her one by one, holding out our hands with our right under
our left. She says to us, Body of Christ and we're supposed to say, Amen and
then she puts a tiny chocolate chip cookie in our hand and we get to eat it. I
really like it when we practice because the cookies are so good and I'm excited
for Father John to give us cookies, too.
On the day of my First Communion I'm really excited because I get to
wear a fancy white dress with a veil and white tights and new white shoes with
sparkles. Mom takes my picture by the fireplace and Aunt Kathy says I've never
looked so pretty—like a little angel, she says and then my mom's boyfriend
laughs real mean and says, yeah, she's quite the angel. I don't like him very
much because he drinks a lot and comes home late and makes Mom cry. But I'm
so happy in my pretty new clothes and I try to forget that he's there and I smile
my biggest smile for the camera.
When we get to the church the entire class has to sit together on the altar.
All the boys wear ties and the girls are in white dresses, but mine's the prettiest.
After everybody takes pictures and the priest says a prayer, we all go and sit in
the front row. The mass goes on forever and I make sure that I'm sitting up
straight against the wooden pew and that I don't talk and I keep my hands to
myself because I want to be sure to get my cookie. Then finally Father John asks
all the First Communion kids to begin the procession to get their first Eucharist.
When it's my turn, I hold out my hand just like Mrs. Spencer taught us and I say
Amen at just the right time. The priest puts something in my hand and it's
definitely not a chocolate chip cookie. I put it in my mouth, but it's nasty. It
tastes like stale, thin cardboard. I take it out of my mouth and hand it back to the
priest and ask if he has any chocolate chip Eucharist. He looks really mad and
says in a really quiet voice, this is the body of our Lord and you should accept it
gratefully. I tell him again that I'd really rather have the chocolate chip kind he
tells me that this is all I'm getting so I should just eat it and keep moving because
I'm holding up the line.
I'm disappointed that I have to eat cardboard instead of a cookie, but I
decide to talk to Mrs. Spencer about it and to ask if they could give out cookies
for our Second Communion.
Kiss the Girl, Whoa Whoa
I'm The Little Mermaid for Halloween this year. The Ariel costume looks
just like the movie. I have a wig with long hair that as red as a fire truck. I also
have a fin that drags on the floor and fabric purple seashells over my boobies.
The whole outfit is attached to a leotard that looks like tights. Grandma says that
it's not decent and Mom says that I look so cute with my purple padded shells.
All afternoon I run around in my costume singing songs from the movie. My
favorite is Kiss the Girl because I like the part when the seagull squawks.
That night my friend Adriane comes over and she's Minnie Mouse and
we're getting ready to go trick-or-trearing. I walk towards the door but then I
can't move and I fall down. I look behind me and Adriane's standing on my fin
and she ripped it off. She says it's an accident but I don't care. I'm so mad that
she ruined my costume that I pull back my arm and punch her in the face. She
starts to cry and her Minnie Mouse makeup runs. My mom is so mad and I get
in so much trouble that I don't get to go trick-or-trearing and she makes me
apologize to Adriane. I say I'm sorry but I'm not. Then I tell her that even with a
torn fin, my Little Mermaid costume is still better than her stupid Minnie Mouse
dress. Then Mom yells more and I have to go sit in the guest bedroom while
Mom walks Adriane home.
I sit on the maroon bedspread and think of all the people who won't get to
see me in my costume. To make myself feel better I sing songs from the movie
under my breath. Swaying back and forth I whisper, Kiss the girl, whoa whoa,
shalalala my oh my looks like the boy too shy ain't gonna kiss the girl, whoa
Grandma's New Room
I was at Grandma and Grandpa's house the other day when Grandma got
moved into her own room. Mom says she and Grandpa won't share anymore
because of the new hospital bed that Grandma needs. I'm not really sad about
this even though everyone else seems to be. I'm just excited that now I get to
play in the white bed with handles. If you touch the buttons, it goes up and
down and from side to side. It's really neat, but I've already gotten in trouble
four times today for using it. Grandma let me lay down in it with her, but then
when Mom came in she got mad at me. Get out of there now, she says. I tell her,
Grandma said I could be in here. And then Mom's face gets red and she yells,
get out before you hurt your grandmother. I thought that was just silly because
Grandma's bigger than me and I don't think I could hurt her by sleeping next to
her, but Mom was watching me, so I just got out.
Grandma also has a new toilet for her room. It's plastic and white and
they put it next to her bed. I've used it twice. While they were bringing it in her
room Mom and Aunt Kathy talked about a nursing home. I think that's a home
for nurses, but I don't know why they all live together and not with their
families. When I asked Mom about it, she started to cry. I must have said
something bad, but I'm not sure what.
Kissing Jeff
Today I kissed Jeff Russell at recess. It was under the slide, so I didn't
think anybody would see. But then Stefanie Woodard dragged Mrs. Corbin over
and she said, what are you two doing? Jeff said, nothing, and then he ran away.
Why were you kissing him, Mrs. Corbin asked me. I said, because I'm bigger
and stronger and he's cute. She laughed and said I had to sit on the bench for the
rest of recess and Jeff sat on the other end. He didn't talk to me because he was
mad that I made him lose his recess.
Then Stefanie Woodard came over and talked to Jeff but not to me. I think
she likes him, but she's not bigger or stronger than him, so I don't think she'll
ever kiss him. I'm a little worried that my mom and dad are going to be mad
when they find out I kissed Jeff Russell at recess. I'm afraid they'll think it's
because I walk like a prostitute. Or because of my hour-glass.
Last year my sister's boss bought her breast implants for her Christmas
bonus. This would make sense if she was a stripper, but she's not. She's a
secretary for a real estate office.
"Guess what I got you for Christmas?" she asks as we sit around the
kitchen table playing cards.
Jada grabs my hand and pulls it under her shirt and bra and places it
directly on her new D's. "You like that? Happy holidays" she tells me. At least
she got our dad a gift card.
Later on that night I was going to the bathroom and she walked in on me,
locking the door behind her. "Wanna see 'em?" she asked.
"I'm sorta busy right now," I replied. "Can we do this after I take a
"It'll just take a minute," she said as she lifted up her shirt and pulled her
bra over her chest.
"They look great," I lied. Really I thought they were kind of gross. There
were deep scars and possibly a rash, but I couldn't be sure. I didn't want to
mention any of this because I didn't want to be seen as the jealous sister sporting
B-cups. I thought about how they felt—like a rock encased in a balloon filled
with pudding. They were perky, though, I'll give them that.
When Dad found out that Jada got what she described as her "purty new
tits," he put his head in his hands and shook it back and forth while he muttered
"Five thousand dollars" over and over. That was it—he didn't yell or anything.
I got my belly button pierced on my eighteenth birthday. When he found out
about it, he completely lost it. He screamed about what was I thinking and I
should have known better and what was I thinking and does my mother know
and what was I thinking. He threatened to rip it out, and he very nearly did. So
I was pretty disappointed when my father let Jada off the hook so easily.
As a child, Dad sometimes made Jada baby-sit me on the weekends if he
was working or courting my now stepmother. We were supposed to stay at
home, but we never did. When she first got her license she took me to a house
party somewhere in Spring Hill, and that was the night I learned about sex and
drugs. I was in second grade.
"What do I have to do to keep you from blabbing to Dad?" she asked me
point blank.
"I want a personal pepperoni pan pizza from Pizza Hut," I replied.
Once in the car we drove through the closest Pizza Hut—I don't
remember exactly where it was, but I remember that it had a Taco Bell attached.
She bought my food and we went to the party. There was a group of people
playing a drinking game with cards at the kitchen table. Another group of
people was taking bong hits in the corner. At the time, I thought they were
blowing air into a vase, which seemed really stupid. "Okay, sit here on the
couch," said Jada and I quickly obeyed, uncomfortable in my new surroundings.
She handed me her watch. "When the big hand gets on the twelve and the little
hand gets on the eleven, you have to come and get me," she said.
"I can tell time," I responded, annoyed. "I am eight years old."
"Okay, well, eat your pizza and don't forget to come get me when it's time
to leave."
"Where are you going?" I asked, tempted to tell her that leaving me alone
was never part of the bargain and that I would require an extra pizza with these
new negotiations.
"I'm just going into that room right there." She pointed to an olive green
door that was covered in scratch marks. She got up from the couch and pulled
the guy next to the door frame into the room. There was a slide thud as it closed
behind her.
Jada has a stripper on speed dial. Her name is Ashley. According to Jada,
she's the best that Kansas City has to offer in exotic dancing. Jade's tried others
before, but either their smoke breaks were too long or they lacked rhythm or they
weren't flexible enough. Jackie almost made the cut, but she blew it towards the
end of the evening; "She bit the shit out of my cunt!" Jada yelled for a week.
Ashley was coming to Jada's thirtieth birthday party to perform at 11 p.m.
A bar had been rented out, a table set up for gifts, a table for cake, and a table for
Ashley. Jada had been drinking for hours by the time I arrived with my father.
"What up, ho! Hey, Dad!" she hollered as we walked through the door.
She stumbled over and grabbed each of us around the neck with one arm. "I'm
so glad you guys could come! Do you want to meet my friends? Come meet my
friends!" She clutched my hand and dragged me around the room, telling
everyone we came across, "This is my little sister. She's in college. She's really
smart. Emily, "she said as she turned to look at me, "say something smart to
Surprised, I scanned the room for help. "I'm not really that smart," I
"Say something!" yelled a brunette named Tanya, who was wearing the
floral centerpiece on her head.
"a2 + b 2 = c2," I stated quickly, unable to handle the pressure.
Luckily, the jukebox started playing "Baby Got Back/' which is Jada's
"jam." She shoved past her friends and I and crawled onto the table reserved for
"Even through the jeans she's wearing, I'm hooked and I can't stop
staring" sang Jada as she wavered into a standing position on the tabletop. She
belted out the song as she gyrated to a captive audience. Dad looked at me with
a terrified expression.
"L.A. face with an Oakland booty," yelled a man in the back, filling in for
nonexistent backup singers.
Jada shimmied and shook everything she had. Everything. "Silicone
parts are made for toys!" she screamed as she tore off her shirt, swung it around,
and chucked it into the crowd.
Dad turned to me and said quietly, "It's time to go." He ushered me out
the door quickly; we never even got to see Ashley.
Jada had her wedding shower at Aunt Maria's house, who I consider a
countrified Martha Stewart. Everything looked like it could be in a magazine—a
buffet of dainty finger foods and pink punch on top of an elaborately
embroidered white tablecloth, party favors of small glass bottles filled with
homemade bath salts (don't ask me how she did it), and an antique table piled
high with ornately wrapped gifts. Maria passed around a rolling pin that
everyone was supposed to write warm wishes on. All the women in the family
were sitting in a circle in the living room with my sister in the middle.
"Open your presents, Jada/' her mother, Michelle, yelled from the kitchen.
"Okay," she yelled back. The women scooted in closer. "Dee, will you
keep track?" she asked my sister-in-law as she handed her a notebook.
"Who's the first one from?" asked someone from the crowd.
"I don't know. Let's see," Jada said. "Looks like it's from Aunt Linda."
She tore off the silver bow and the lavender wrapping. "It's a skillet!" she
exclaimed with a big smile on her face. It was so strange to see my sister excited
about mundane domestic items, and for a brief moment I longed for the sister
who gave condoms as birthday gifts and titty grabs for Christmas. What would
that person want with a skillet?
"Who's the next one from?" asked Aunt Maria. Jada picked up a medium
sized bag decorated with white doves.
"This is from Mom," she said as she pulled out the tissue paper. She
reached in the bag and removed a clock with a beer logo and a busty blond at the
center wearing light-up Daisy Dukes and a barely there halter top. Her legs
doubled as the hands of the clock, and everyone was surprised at her
contortionist abilities.
"What the hell is that?" Maria asked Jada's mom, appalled.
"It was on their registry," Michelle responded defensively.
"Did you put this on your registry?" accused Maria.
"Well, he wanted it," Jada said meekly. "He doesn't ask for a whole
lot.. .and.. .he really wanted it," she said as her eyes started to well u p with tears.
"I know..." she couldn't continue because of the sob in the back of her throat.
The chatter about the gift immediately ceased and the room sat in an awkward
silence. No one had seen her cry before, especially not about being in love with a
man with shit taste in timepieces. She blew her nose and took a drink of punch
as said in a clearer voice, "I know it's a stupid clock. But if it'll make him happy,
I'll put u p with it." She looked at the clock in her hand and sighed. "I'll put up
with this stupid fucking ugly clock."
"Tell me again when you're going to graduate," she said to me from the
front seat.
"In May," I answered.
"Yeah? So after this you're finished with school forever?"
"For now, at least," I said, leaning toward the front of the car.
"So what do you do up there at school?"
"I take classes and write papers. I'm writing a thesis right now."
"What's a thesis?"
"It's basically a really long paper."
"What's it about?"
"Us. The family/' I told her, uneasily, knowing what was coming next.
"What about the family?" she asked accusingly.
"Oh, different things. It's not finished yet so I'm not really sure what will
be in it," I said, wishing I'd never brought it up.
"Are you gonna write a story about me?"
"Do you want me to?"
"I don't know. I'm not very interesting," she said sadly as she stared out
the window.
"Gordita"1 By Any Other Name...
On my first day in Costa Rica my host mom, Ericka, took me to the
grocery store to buy whatever foods I wanted. The cart was soon filled with an
array of fresh fruits that I hadn't really asked for, but had looked at curiously,
therefore making them worthy of purchase. Among our treasures were peaches
that nearly burst from their skins with fresh juice, miniature bananas that taste
much sweeter than their American cousins, and avocados in the shape and size
of butternut squash with dark green rinds.
When we got home, Ericka sliced two or three fruits from each type she
had bought. I would try each one delicately and slowly, afraid I would
embarrass myself by eating something in the wrong way. Manzanitas, which
looked like crab apples, were particularly puzzling. Their skins were thick and
bumpy. Do you just bite through it and risk breaking your teeth? Do you cut it
up? I still don't know.
Her face was fixed with a permanent smile and she continued to cover my
small saucer with more and more food. "jComa mas, Emily, coma mas!"2 she
would yell. When I couldn't eat another bite I gently pushed my plate away and
she looked as if I'd just punched her in the stomach. "Usted no come nada,"3 she
said sadly as she took the plate away. Even though she was upset with me for
Literally, it means "the little fat one."
"Eat more, eat more!"
"You don't eat anything."
not eating what she considered to be a sufficient amount, it always seemed
strange to me since she usually only ate one meal a day and was often referred to
as "the skinny girl." (One day she and I were standing on a street corner waiting
for the light to turn green. A man in a scooter drove by and yelled "jRica Flaca!"4
I was pretty sure he wasn't referring to me.) Ericka was only twenty-six years old
and was, by all accounts, a hottie. With a defined hour-glass figure and black
hair reaching the middle of her back, there had more than one American boy
drooling over her good looks. Yet even though she didn't sport the same flab
and sags as the other Costa Rican mothers, she was still incredibly maternal and
was constantly concerned that I wasn't getting enough to eat. When she asked
me what I wanted for breakfast I told her that I don't really eat much in the
mornings and something light would be fine. I sat down to find three full plates
of eggs, sausage, plantains, tamales, tortillas, fruit, rice, and a papaya smoothie.
And I was expected to eat all of it.
I was not prepared for this.
I didn't know that there was a place where being called "gordita" was a
compliment or third helpings were met with praise. The idea of counting carbs
was nonexistent and vendors were literally on every street corner. The smell of
tacos and burgers wafted through the air, and the local ice cream parlor Pops
"Hot skinny girl!"
was the Americans' geographical home plate. There were no street signs, so only
way we knew how to get anywhere was to count how many blocks we were
from the ice cream.
The American girls would talk about how different the perception of food
was and how much they preferred the Costa Rican ideals, even though they
generally didn't like being called gorditas. It wasn't uncommon to see a pack of
Costa Rican woman with dark hair, almond eyes, and jeans so tight on rounded
figures that they seemed to be screaming for help. And the men on the street
loved every ounce of them—tummy rolls bulging out of a tight t-shirt were met
with whistles and cat calls. We were all influenced by these new ideals of body
image to some extent, but one American girl in particular, Janis, took to them
much easier than any of her other compatriots.
Janis was sitting at the wet bar flirting with a gorgeous Costa Rican man
in broken Spanish. He had the body of a Greek god and would easily have been
accepted as a piece of art in any museum—taut, toned, and tan—I know I would
have paid to look at him for hours. In contrast, Janis' tight bikini left nothing
much to the imagination and the rolls from her pale white stomach were spilling
out of her bottoms, making it impossible to ignore the cellulite creeping up her
thighs. And she couldn't have been happier. She told her latest prey in broken
Spanish that if she had a penis, she would name it Volcan Arenal because it's one
of the most potent volcanoes in the world. I was awed by what I considered
audacity and what she considered normal behavior. Janis was well aware that
people were shocked by her conduct, but she never let it get to her. Whenever
she heard anyone say anything even remotely judgmental about her, she would
put her hands over her head and sway from side to side while humming "Hey
Jude." When I later told her that I wished I could be as comfortable with my
body as she was with hers, she simply raised her margarita glass in the air and
yelled, "Love your body! And love everyone else's body—both frequently and
with protection!"
Taking her advice (to some extent) I decided to gorge myself at every meal
according to Costa Rican custom, which made Ericka very happy. One of my
American friends happily joined me in the feat of stuffing myself at every meal,
and after every dinner we would rub each other's protruding stomach. Our
theory was that if you could touch another person's fat rolls, then there wouldn't
be any reason to be embarrassed about having them. We referred to this sacred
ritual as "touching the baby." With each passing day I became more and more
grateful that Ericka line-dried the family's clothes instead of putting them in a
dryer, thus assuring that they would stretch slightly with every washing.
I ate everything that was put in front of me—dulce de leche, empanadas,
tacos, fruit salads, and a salsa called chimichurri. I even ate things that terrified
me, like chicharrones. The first time I tried this delicacy, the English translation
wouldn't come to me. Having learned about it when I started taking Spanish in
high school, all I could remember was complete disgust when I first read about it
in the "Cultural Commentary" section of our text book. Some strange part of an
animal? I thought to myself. While the small round balls of red flesh did not
look appetizing, I knew that refusing a Costa Rican woman's food was
sacrilegious. I picked up one of the pieces and popped it in my mouth. It tastes
like salty, rubbery ham. The chicharrones was difficult to chew because of its
elastic texture and extreme saltiness. As I swallowed what was in my mouth, it
suddenly came to me—pig feet. Chicharrones means pig feet. More specifically, it's
the small parts of flesh on the bottom of the hooves—the hooves that do nothing
but walk in poop and dirt until the day they're chopped off. I only ate the one.
In the grocery store I mulled around the frozen food section trying to
figure out what everything was. A middle aged man with a cowboy hat and a
greasy black moustache circled me, staring intently. Just as he leaned in for a
closer look, Ericka pushed herself between us and glared at him until he slunk
away. "Como un perro a la basurera/' 5 she said as she continued her shopping.
This was my first experience as a machita (a light skinned woman, typically from
America, who is seen as the "exotic other"). Wherever I went, people stared.
Blue-eyed redheads with summer freckles were quite a spectacle. Strangers
would yell across the road, "Tienes los ojos preciosos!"6 Traffic would stop so
that I could cross the street. A girl could get used to that.
One day at a birthday party, the guests asked Ericka if my hair was real,
which I thought was kind of rude, but she seemed to think it a perfectly normal
question. "Si, es real." Someone else asked if I colored it. "No. Es natural," I
replied, adamant to prove that I knew enough Spanish to know they were
talking about me. Just then Ericka spoke very fast and waved her arm in my
direction. I wasn't sure what she'd said, and I panicked when a mass of Costa
Ricans rushed toward me to start stroking my hair, feeling my eyebrows, and
poking my freckles. The birthday girl who was turning six looked at me from
the kitchen table and asked with an alarmed tone, "Que paso con su piel?"7
"Nada. Siempre es asi."8
"Oh," she replied sympathetically.
"Like a dog at a trashcan."
"You have lovely eyes."
"What happened to your skin?"
"Nothing. It's always like this."
Later that week entire family came over for a barbecue, and Ericka's
mother brought a plastic grocery bag into the living room and asked me if I'd
like to see a surprise. She opened the bag and pulled out two dead ducklings.
Ericka had found them wandering around her work two days ago. How they
died is unclear, but I'm sure it didn't help that Ericka's seven-year-old son was
playing with them alone in his room all day. One was yellow and the other a
dark gray. Their limp bodies lay in her hands with their feet dangling through
her fingers. Occasionally a head would roll from side to side if she made any
quick movements. I looked down at my barbecued chicken leg and decided that
I was full.
Eating the orange chicken was a mistake—I see that now. At the time I
pushed aside thoughts of bacteria and salmonella and hoped against hope that it
was just a marinade. I was wrong.
My family's method of food preservation was to take a leftover meal,
place a paper towel over it, and put it in the microwave until the next meal,
when it would be instantly reheated. There were rarely many leftovers, so it
wasn't a big deal.. .until the chicken. When Ericka put it on the table before me, I
had a feeling it was bad news, but my sense of social propriety commanded that
I eat what was served regardless of the consequences. Then the vomiting started.
I puked for a day and a half before seeing a doctor. The whole way to the
office, the trip coordinator, Cecilia, kept telling me what a good doctor I going to
see, emphasizing that he studied in Russia. I didn't understand why attending
med school in Russia was such a big deal, but I wasn't in the mood to ask.
When we got to the office, there were barbed wires on the windows and a
large metal gate to go through once we were cleared by security. This did not
make me feel good about the situation. Once in the waiting room, loud cumbia
music played through the speakers, which was a definite improvement from the
elevator music so prominent in American antechambers. After waiting an hour,
a small, brown man with white hair stepped out of his office and invited me in.
He probably told me his name, but I don't remember it now.
He instructed me to sit on the hospital bed and tell him about my
"Estoy vomitando muchisimo,"91 stated.
He told me to lie down on the bed and he started to feel my stomach.
"^Laoiehanf?"10 he asked.
"^Como?" I replied.
"^Dljeome lskdjfod dfjdfjd?"11 he asked again, this time more quickly.
"I'm puking a lot."
10 9
11 99
Still confused, I responded as I always did when I didn't understand
something: "Okay." He looked at me quizzically and silence filled the room,
both of us waiting for the other to make a move. Suddenly he reached down and
started unbuttoning my jeans. I bolted into a sitting position and started
screaming at him in English as I hit him with more power than I knew I had. The
stepped back in shock (and probably to avoid further blows) and Cecilia quickly
jumped in to referee. She rubbed my back and sat on the side of the bed, saying
soothing things in Spanish. When I had calmed down, she explained the
situation to me very slowly, using Sesame Street words. The doctor thought I
needed a shot, and the only place they administer them in Costa Rica is in the
butt. That's why he tried to undo my pants. (What can I say? None of the
Spanish text books I've ever read teach you how to say, "Take off your pants so I
can inject you with a painful needle").
Even though I finally understood what was happening, I didn't like it.
But I had just assaulted the beloved Russian-educated doctor, so I kept my
mouth shut and rolled onto my stomach.
The doctor went over to the left side of the room where dozens of
unlabeled vials sat on a shelf. He started mixing this and that together, much
like I do at my spice rack. Thankfully, I'm not allergic to any medications,
because he didn't ask. He just put the liquid into a syringe and approached me
very slowly.
"I'm not going to hit you again," I told him in English, annoyed. He gave
me the shot and said I could button up and sit up.
"Debes beber agua dulce para recobrar la salud."12
"I can't. I'm insulin resistant," I told him, wishing I had my dictionary.
"Urn.. .tengo azucar malo."13
"^Como?" he asked. I tried again.
"Tengo demasiado azucar en mi sangre,"141 replied, quite proud of myself
for what I considered to be a brilliant translation.
"^Como?" While I now see that he was a doddering old man that was not
accustomed to treating Americans and had little knowledge of English, I was, at
the time, perturbed. So perturbed that I just lost it.
"Fine," I yelled, throwing my hands in the air. "I'll drink your sugar
water. I'll drink your sugar water every day and then I'll go into a diabetic coma
and die. Would that make you happy?"
Both he and Cecilia were staring at me, confused and slightly scared.
"Creo que debemos salir ahora,"15 said Cecilia slowly. And we did.
"You should drink sugar water to get better."
"I have bad sugar."
"I have too much sugar in my blood."
"I think we should leave now."
One night Ericka and I were making dinner (well, she was making it and I
was watching), and the entire extended family showed up unannounced, hauling
their American students in tow. That's when I realized that in Costa Rica, parties
arise from out of nowhere. One minute you're cooking dinner and the next,
there's a group of people in your living room and the stereo is blasting merengue
and salsa. (In an attempt to appear well-versed in Spanish music, I told my
family I liked Shakira and knew many of her songs. They all crinkled their noses
and informed me that she is from Colombia and all Colombians deal drugs.
Why would I like someone who does that?) Ericka's brother, Frazier, cranked up
the volume and grabbed Amy, one of the Americans. He swirled and twirled her
all over the small living room while Delicia, one of Ericka's sisters, danced the
cumbia by herself in the corner. Babies were passed from person to person and
someone brought out a pifiata for the kids to break.
The cacophony of music, yelling, conversation, and laughter filled the
room, as did the smell of the prepared meal. The table was completely full of
food—it would have been impossible to add another plate. There were tamales,
gallo pinto, chimichurri, chicharrones, arroz con polio, chile relleno, tacos,
assorted fruits and vegetables, guacamole, and sopa. I looked at the full spread
and thought to myself, "This is a gordita's paradise."
Obedience, Piety, and Sweetness of Temper
There's a photo of my grandfather and me on my aunt's dresser. I'm
about a year old. My nose is scrunched up and I'm laughing with my arms
waving in the air. I still had blonde hair then and I wore a pink sweat suit that
had a picture of a poodle with a high bouffant hairdo that looked exactly like my
grandfather's. I had put my grandmother's curlers in his hair. Pink plastic
curlers from Wal-Mart. Grandpa always used pomade on his thick black hair
that never turned gray, so it couldn't have been an easy job. In the photo, my
grandfather holds me in his arms and laughs with me, pink curlers and all.
"I swear—there's no one else he would ever let do that to him," my aunt
says every time she looks at it.
Mom calls on a Tuesday. "Your grandfather's in the hospital," she says.
"They think he had a stroke, but he seems to be getting a little better."
"Should I come home?" I ask tentatively. Away at school, it's sometimes
difficult for me to feel like I'm part of a family. Phone calls and emails are
frequent, but I don't go home much. Although I love my grandfather, I don't
want to leave my life in Kirksville unless I absolutely have to. It's too hard to
reschedule meetings, make up class work, and beg someone to cover my hours at
The Writing Center.
"No, I don't think you need to come down," Mom replies. "I'll let you
know if there's any change."
"Okay, well, is there anything I should do from here?" I only ask because
I know she'll say no.
"No, I think we've got everything covered."
In a traditional Roman Catholic family like mine, the duty of the daughter
is an overwhelming force. My mother is oldest daughter of five children. It's her
responsibility to raise the others when my grandmother is away. In 1969 my
mother asks Grandpa if she can go to college.
"You're smart enough for a girl," he says. "It's time to get married."
So she does. She marries at nineteen, has a baby at twenty, and divorces
at twenty-one.
I, in turn, am expected to perform the same tasks with the same
enthusiasm that my grandmother did in the fifties. Obedience, piety, and
sweetness of temper—these are the characteristics I'm supposed to embody. I do
not. Instead I refuse to become confirmed in the Catholic faith and I apply to
college. I leave home with a scholarship and a glare from my grandfather.
"No man's gonna marry a woman that's smarter than him," he says to me
the day before I leave.
"I guess I'll just have to risk it," I say casually, even though it infuriates
Since my mother works ten hour days, my grandfather picks me up after
school and I stay with my grandparents until about six o'clock. Today I bring
home a painting from art class. It's of Raggedy Ann. Her head is
disproportionately large to the rest of her body and her blue dress mixes with the
purple background so that it's difficult to know where she begins and ends.
Despite its imperfections, my grandfather goes into the garage to make a frame
for it. The garage is designated as "Grandpa's room." It's where he keeps his
tools and lumber. Sometimes he makes me little wooden animals from prints out
of catalogues. The elephant and the cat are my favorites.
When he finishes with the frame, we hang the picture in the living room
next to the telephone. I'm excited to have my painting on the wall and I want to
do something nice for Grandpa. I go into the garage and try to sweep up the
sawdust and wood trimmings. The broom is too big for me to handle, and I end
up spreading the mulch to all corners of the garage, streaks of brown following
my every step. Grandpa comes into the garage and sees what I've done.
Angrily, he stalks over to me and grabs the broom from my hands.
"Haven't I told you to stay out of here," he yells. "Never come in here
when I'm not around! You'll get hurt!"
I run to my grandmother and tattle. "He yelled at me like he never yelled
at me before," I say as I sniffle into my pudgy hand.
My grandmother pats my head. "It's okay, Emmy. I'll go talk to him," she
says soothingly as she marches into the garage. I only hear muffled sounds, but
whatever she says strikes a chord. He never raises his voice to me again.
We dye Easter eggs every year. Grandpa makes the colors come to life in
small coffee cups, and I think it's magic. No other grandfather can make water
turn pink or blue or green. Laying out newspaper, he lets me decorate them any
way I want. One year I decide to mix all the colors together in a big bowl,
thinking that the hard-boiled eggs would turn out like rainbows. "Those look
real nice," he says, even though they looked purplish-brown, like someone had
thrown up on them. I try to cover up mistakes with stickers of baby chicks and
Easter baskets, but there aren't enough of them for total damage control.
After about fifteen minutes, Grandpa goes into the family room and sits in
his easy chair to watch the basketball game. Every now and then he shouts over
to me, "How's it goin'?"
"Fine!" I yell back.
"We" color Easter eggs until I am a sophomore in college. My junior year I
will not come home. "But your grandfather looks forward to it every year," my
mother says. "It's two weeks away and he already bought the dye and
"Mom, I have too much to do here. I'm not driving three hours just to
paint eggs. Can't Aubrey and Emma do it?" Aubrey and Emma are my cousins.
At six and three, they are doing everything with our grandfather that I did at
their age. I feel like I should forfeit the egg dying job before it's taken away from
A week later, my grandfather calls me. "Aubrey and Emma came over
today," he says.
"Really?" I try to sound surprised.
"Yep. They colored this year's eggs. You don't mind, do you?"
"No, that's okay," I reply. "How'd they do?"
"Well, Aubrey's afraid of getting dirty and Emma's isn't having fun unless
she's getting dirty," he says. "Neither of them is as creative as you were."
"I think it's time for you to come home now," my mother says over the
phone. "They've moved him to hospice."
"Do they know how much time he has left?" I ask.
"They're not really sure. Maybe a couple of weeks."
"Then do you think it's okay if I come home on Friday? I could use the week
to get stuff done and rearrange everything for next week."
My mother is quiet for a few moments. "Sure, honey. You do what you need
to do." I'm glad I'm not there to see her face when she says this to me.
I decide to leave at two in the afternoon. Classes would be over and I'd
have time to pack a bag. At the last minute I choose to skip my education class
and leave at noon instead so that I won't hit traffic.
I have the directions to hospice in my purse. By the time I get there, he is
unconscious and heavily medicated. But he looks normal, more or less. Shaved
face, clean hair, old blue pajamas. He's snoring, which I find oddly comforting.
He looks like he does every night, except that he is contorted into a bizarre
position, laying on his back, but turned to the right side, his head turned as far
up as it can go, legs akimbo.
"Dad," my aunt shouts into my grandfather's ear, "Emily's here. She's here
from Kirksville." His eyes fling open, and I step back automatically. He grunts
and goes back to sleep. "Do you want to say something to him?"
"That's okay. He looks pretty tired. Where is everybody?" I ask as I turn
away from him.
"Well, your uncles are working and your mother went shopping for a pair
of black pants."
"Black pants? For a funeral? Do they think it'll be that quick?"
"No, they think he might hold on another week. Bless his heart," she says
as she pats his hand. "I think your mother just needed to get out for awhile.
She's been here three days straight. Are you going back to Kirksville on
"That's what I'm planning on."
"And then you'll come back.. .when it's time...right?"
"Yeah, I'll come back."
I've never been to a hospice center before this, but I've been to many
hospitals, and I imagine they're about the same thing. But the hospice is more
like a hotel than a hospital. There's cheap art on the walls, plants in the corners,
and flowers on the tables. My grandfather has a private room complete with
couch, easy chair, and entertainment center. It's better furnished than my
apartment. Pictures that Aubrey and Emma have drawn hang on the walls next
to a stack of pamphlets that read, "How to Talk to Children about Death." The
shelves are lined with get well cards from distant family members, and I browse
through them, but they all seem more or less the same.
All of the hospice employees are smiley and cheerful and ask how your
day is going—which I find incredibly odd given their line of work. They are all
women, and the youngest seems to be in her late forties. Most of them are
overweight and I briefly consider how that might help them at their job—make
them seem more approachable, more cuddly, like they would completely
envelope you in their large arms and let you cry for hours.
My aunt leaves the room to make phone calls. My grandfather and I are
left alone. He snores a bit and his breathing is a little shallow, but that seems
normal considering where we are. His hair is a mess and he is thinner than
before. I look at his tattoos that have grown saggy and discolored with age. On
his right forearm is a blue imprint of a large ship. He got it right before he
entered the Navy. On his left forearm is my grandmother's name, Joleen,
tattooed in curly, slanted writing. You can't read it anymore because of the folds
in his skin, but I still know what it says.
I sit on the couch and watch The Price is Right. I don't want to look for the
A young intern comes in to check the bedpan. We exchange pleasantries
and then she leaves. A few minutes later a nurse comes in and stands over my
grandfather. "Hi," she says with a smile. "I'm Mary. The girl who was just here
said that his breathing was a little raspy, so I thought I'd come check it out."
"Okay," I say, not very concerned.
"Is your mother here?" she asks as she feels his pulse and checks his
"No, but my aunt's in the waiting room talking to my uncle on the phone.
Should I go get her?"
"Yeah, hon, why don't you?"
"Is everything okay?" I ask, suddenly nervous.
"He seems to be having a lot of trouble breathing," she says. I walk quickly
into the waiting room. It's empty except for my aunt.
"He's having trouble breathing," I say.
"Oh, my God, he can't breathe!" she yells into the phone and hangs up. We
go back into the room, the nurse still by the bed.
"Why don't you girls come over here? Don't be afraid to get close, now.
He won't bite," she says. We stand by the bed, afraid to move. The nurse's hand
is on his chest. He gives one harsh, raspy breath. "Well, maybe he's not quite
finished here," she said. We wait another moment. Nothing. "Okay, I think he's
probably gone now," she said as she puts her hand on my shoulder.
My aunt and I start to cry, but not very much. For a death scene, it lacks
drama and it seems silly to wail and moan.
"I'm so sorry," the nurse says to me. "He sure was a sweetie. I haven't
seen you before. Did you just get here?"
"This is his granddaughter," my aunt says. "She's sort of the grandchild, if
you know what I mean. He was waiting for you, Emmy. He was waiting for
There's a photo of my grandfather and me on a shelf in my living room.
I'm about twenty years old. Grandpa's arm is around my shoulder and my head
leans a little into his armpit. I'm wearing a purple sweater and large hoop
earrings. We have just opened Christmas presents and my grandfather holds his
new digital camera in his right hand. We both look into the camera and smile
awkwardly, wondering when this will end.
Grandfather Clock
The night my grandfather died, Uncle John cooked Guamanian food for
dinner. Sour beef, finadinni, chicken and rice with cabbage. He only made it for
special occasions. Exotic spices, soy sauce, and tomatoes wafted throughout the
familiar house. Each separate dish was spread all over the kitchen and you had
to fight a dozen people for a plate and a place at the table. Looking back, it
seemed like any other meal, except that this time our patriarch was dying in the
living room.
My grandparents had lived in that house in Wichita for the last thirty
years. The furniture was rarely moved and the location of household items
never changed, yet I still had difficulty finding things in the deep cabinets and
long drawers. Hanging from the ceiling in the living room were glass doves that
were put up the day they moved in. They were still hanging there when I
walked up the concrete steps of the house, through the indigo colored door, and
into the living room.
He had been there for about two days, lying unconscious in a hospital
bed. His last day of lucidity was a Monday. Even though my grandfather once
worked as a bartender, he never drank, so my stepmother, Cathe, was surprised
when he asked for a beer. "I don't know if it's the smell I miss or what, but I'd
really like a drink," he said as he sat in his soft azure La-Z-Boy. My cousin was
sent to the store for a six-pack of O'Doul's. He couldn't have the real stuff
because of his heart medication. My aunt Debbie came to the house about an
hour later and exclaimed, "What are you doing with a bottle in your hand,
"I'm having me a near beer here," he replied with a grin that suddenly
turned sour. "Ugh.. .1 think I have indigestion."
My stepmother told that story as we sat around the hospital bed, keeping
vigil. She regretted that she didn't actually get him a real beer like he'd asked
for. "As if it would have done any harm now," she kept repeating.
How odd to see this colossal man lie meekly in bed. I realized I'd never
seen him lie down before—he was always the first one up and the last one to
sleep. His hefty frame had diminished, leaving protruding ribs and hollow eye
sockets. His skin still yellow from the jaundice, he seemed to glow a bit like a
pumpkin that's not quite ripe. Even though he lay naked under the covers with
soupy brown bile oozing from him, helpless as a newborn, he still commanded
the same respect and admiration that everyone had always had for him. Even
though his body had become the shell of a former self, he still felt like Grandpa.
When my grandfather contracted cancer for the second time, the family
wasn't worried. He'd breezed through the first bout with such ease that we all
thought he could do it again. A few weeks of chemotherapy with subsequent
nausea and diarrhea, and then everything would be good again. I think now that
we just didn't want to think about the fact that we might lose him. That the
nucleus of the family would disappear. Of course Grandpa would always be
there to make potato pancakes and tell funny stories. Of course he would. In
typical VanDegrift fashion, if you don't acknowledge the problem, then it
eventually goes away. But it didn't stop— it spread. Spread to his stomach and
liver. So when I got the call that his body was shutting down, it was more than a
shock. It was an attack on my reality that I hadn't noticed, despite the obvious
signs. My father cried on the phone as he told me. And that was the only way
that I knew it was really bad.
There was already a full house of people when Dad and I arrived after the
two and a half hour car ride. Extended family bearing casseroles came from all
over Wichita, making the journey with reverence and fear like a pilgrimage to
Mecca. Hospice came at least once every day, and they gave quick training
sessions on how to distribute medications and keep the catheter in place. They
also provided phone numbers for who to call when he eventually "passed on."
It seems strange to think that Grandpa's entire life could be boiled down
into a few minor details. His name was Lawrence Duane VanDegrift, but
everyone called him Dewey. He fought in WWII. He worked as a bartender, a
field hand, and a color mixer for a paint company, despite the fact that he was
color blind. In 1949 he married a hillbilly divorcee in a scandalous race against
the second trimester. He fathered seven children. He had large hands with
short, stubby fingers that could fix anything. He loved hats and had an entire
collection that was distributed among the grandchildren after his death. He was
an avid, though not accomplished, singer. If you stood close enough to him, you
could hear him croon "Big Rock Candy Mountain" at all hours of the day. He
buried a daughter in 1985 and his hillbilly divorcee in 1999. He spent the latter
part of his life working part-time with mentally handicapped adults and cooking
fried food, which we all enjoyed in mass quantities.
When Grammy had heart surgery, Grandpa took over the kitchen. She
would plan the menu for the family's Tuesday Night Dinners, but it was
Grandpa's job to make it a reality (under her careful supervision, of course).
Every Tuesday all of the aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and
grandchildren would file into the house, family by family. Heaping platters of
food were spread on the large kitchen table. Everyone would grab a plate, pile it
with the day's specialty, and head to the living room to eat while watching
whatever sporting event was in season, gossiping and catching up during
commercials. Only grandparents and select parents would get a seat at the table.
Children of all ages ran through the house screaming, tattling, and crying.
Parents yelled through over the blare of the television announcer, "Don't stand
in front of the TV! Sit down and finish your dinner! Don't hit your sister! Don't
make me come in there! I'm not gonna tell you again!" Through it all the
faithful grandfather clock chimed every hour on the hour, do-ong, do-ong, do-ong,
refusing to be drowned out by the cacophony of family chatter.
When Grammy died, Grandpa was left to his own devices. He would
make potato pancakes three days in a row or use milk that had turned sour,
convinced that expiration dates were hogwash. "They're just trying to get you to
throw out a perfectly good product and then go out and spend money and buy
some more." We never knew if "they" referred to the dairies, the supermarkets,
or the FDA. It was better not to ask.
Tuesday Night Dinners died soon after the infamous Thursday Night
Casserole. Grandpa would combine all of the leftovers from every meal he'd had
that week. Then he'd mix everything with a couple of eggs and a can of
mushroom soup and put it in a greased casserole dish. Forty minutes later,
dinner would be on the table. Grammy was rolling over in her grave.
Up until her heart surgery, she had been the master and commander of
the kitchen. She cooked everything on high in a desperate attempt to defy the
laws of physics and cook everything in five minutes. The children knew dinner
was ready when the smoke detectors went off and they saw their mother waving
a tea towel through the window. With seven children, each with a different food
allergy, mealtimes were often a struggle. Green beans with butter appeared at
almost every dinner since it was one of the few things was safe for everyone. As
a result, many of the VanDegrift children refuse to eat them in their adult years.
When Uncle John brought in the food for dinner, he found us sitting
around the bed, telling stories of Grandpa and Grammy and all the kids. They
relived the Friday night square dances that my grandparents always went to.
Every child would get a 16 oz. bottle of pop as a negotiation for their absence.
Each Friday afternoon prior to the dance, my grandparents would go into their
rooms and lock the door to "take a nap" before the big night. Despite the fact
that babies kept coming, I don't think anyone caught on to what they were doing
until the early sixties. All that night the tears and laughter would come in waves,
one leading into another, which seems strangely like an average night in the
VanDegrift household.
I had never watched anyone die before, so I didn't really know what to
expect. I felt relieved that he wasn't hooked up to machines or in some bright,
impersonal hospital room that reeked of antiseptic. At least he would be at home
with his family and we could grieve and prepare on our own turf, falsely
believing that we had a home field advantage and that death would have to play
by our rules.
Just when it seemed like the situation had become bearable, that the
waiting might not be that bad after all, seven o'clock rolled around. His breaths
became shallower and further apart. My cousin Kelsey and I were the only two
that noticed—everyone else was still sharing stories. We looked at each other
and her eyes welled up. Turning toward my stepmother she said quietly,
"Cathe, I think it's getting harder for him to breathe." Everyone rushed to the
bedside and the soft moans of people weeping began all over again. Forty
people crammed into the living room, packed as tight as possible. It grew
oppressively hot and air seemed to be in short supply. Faces turned red and
noses turned runny. People gasped just to breathe. In, Pause, Out. In, Pause,
Pause, Out. In, Pause, Pause, Out. The chimes tolled the time in rhythm with his
breathing. We all began counting them aloud like Grandpa had done with the
grandchildren to teach them numbers.
One." In
"Two." Out
"Three." In
"Four." Out
"Five." Pause
"Six." Pause
"Seven." Silence
What Happens in Kirksville, Stays in Kirksville
My father was coming to town for my twenty-fourth birthday. Secretly I
was a little disappointed that I would be spending the day with him instead of
my mother. They divorced when I was three and it seemed to be an unwritten
rule that she would have me for all of the important events and holidays. She
always got Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and everything in between. Dad and
my siblings and I would have variant, artificial celebrations that typically seemed
a pathetic impersonation for what we would never experience together. It's not
as much fun to commemorate a birthday three weeks after it's happened nor is it
easy to be jolly on December 12 when you just drove three hours after a finals
week of writing papers, grading papers, and planning future papers.
Scheduling conflicts kept me from coming home to K.C, so I was
surprised when my father offered to drive to my tiny college town, especially
since holidays had never been his to share with me. I skeptically accepted the
offer, mostly because I wanted him to put together a futon and do other odd
chores around the apartment. I wasn't sure what we would talk about. Despite
our similarities in looks and personality, we don't have many common interests
or opinions.
He takes a lot of credit for my accomplishments. "It's all in the way
they're raised," he says with a smug smile. It doesn't bother me that he says
this—I think he might be right—what bothers me is that he forgets that I've been
cared for by many people. With a single mother who worked late hours, I stayed
with my grandparents after school and into the evening. Weekends and
occasional weekday afternoons were spent with my aunt and uncle. Bedtime
and early morning were with Mom. I was at my father's house every other
weekend—about four days a month. During that time he would usually be
working or at a NASCAR race or visiting friends at the local bar. Much of the
raising he claims was actually done by my stepmother.
My father arrived around 10 a.m. and after depositing a pan of zucchini
brownies on my counter, he hugged me quickly. He only used one arm.
Despite the fact that I hadn't seen him in months, he looked just the same.
A strong, muscular frame with skin tanned from thirty years of working
outdoors. He wore the same khaki shorts and white NASCAR t-shirt tucked into
them and a cap that read "Lloyd Murdock Construction." Although our
wardrobe choices are far different, we look strikingly similar—the same button
nose that gets red when we drink, large lips that make a kind of heart shape, and
shiny blue eyes. I also have my father's hands, although his perpetually smell of
sawdust. Short, wide fingers with patches of thick hair. Thankfully, mine is
blonde and therefore not as noticeable. My stepmother says we both have
asbestos hands since we can take things out of the oven without hot pads and
remain unharmed. I have a student's hands—soft and smooth. I've never
worked with lumber or nail guns or hammers. I've never had to go to the
emergency room because a nail has gone through my flesh. Forceful and
impervious, calloused and bleeding—that's how I think of his hands. Secretly
I've always wished for my mother's—dainty and narrow with a tiny wrist and
long fingernails painted red.
I noticed his hands while he worked on the futon and the bookcase,
screwing this in and pulling that out. The day passed slowly, though not for
want of conversation. We talked about my plans after college, classes for next
semester, and the trouble with my incorrigible nephew. They were the same
conversations we'd been having for the last six months.
We avoided politics, religion, and any other topic of potential conflict. As
a left-wing liberal arts student, I have given my father a lot to deal with over the
years. One time I told my stepmother, "I know he loves me. But I don't think he
knows what to do with me." She agreed on both counts. In terms of the
feminine standards that my father holds dear, I am a magnificent failure. I
cannot sew more than a button, I am not a glorious home chef, nor am I
submissive and obedient. I am smart instead of pretty. I am not skinny and I
don't diet in order to become so. Three years ago I told him how my best
friend's boyfriend told her she was fat. In response, she dumped him and
started doing pilates, which I joined her in. "It's really pretty fun," I told him.
"She says she feels better about herself and she thinks it's helping her lose
"What's it doing for you?" he asked sharply.
He's always been very concerned with women's weight and polices
desserts in the house. My mother sometimes tells the story of the day they
decided to divorce. She was bent over unloading the dishwasher and they were
yelling about my mom's son with her first husband. Eventually my father
completely lost it, "I'm tired of paying for your son's mistakes and I'm tired of
looking at your fat ass!" he screamed. She stood up and after a few moments of
stunned silence he said slowly, "I just destroyed our marriage, didn't I?"
At Ruby Tuesday we had a mostly silent dinner, listening to the table next
to us—a group of students who seemed to have taken advantage of the Saturday
drink special. "I just—I just didn't know what to say," said a girl that I vaguely
remembered from some Spanish course. "I just wanted to say 'fuck you,' but you
can't say that to a teacher, can you?" she asked as she spilled part of her red,
fruity drink onto the crisp, white tablecloth. I was happy that she didn't
recognize me and that she isn't my student.
"Thank you for dinner," I said as he got out his wallet.
"It's the least I can do," he said kind of sadly, "I never see you anymore."
I could sense the slight accusation in the statement, but I wasn't sure if it was
directed at him or me. Secretly I resented this or any other attempt to make me
feel guilty for my isolation in Kirksville. What I wanted to tell him was, "You
weren't interested in seeing me when I lived at home, so why are you so
interested now?" However, that would have involved divulging our emotions,
which is nearly unheard of in our family.
After dinner I had arranged to meet up with some of my friends at
Dukum, a local bar. My father was immediately smitten by my friend Tammy, a
busty blonde who brought a cake to celebrate. And I was surprised to find that
he got along well with my flamboyant friend, Matt. At one point we were
making fun of a guy playing pool that was wearing a pink plaid shirt and blue
plaid shorts. "Well, at least he has nice arms," Matt commented. "I guess we
have to take what we can get." My father's eyes bugged out and he wrapped his
arms more firmly around his torso as if he were protecting himself from the tall,
wiry, balding queer. Dad looked at me and slowly put his arms down. "So,
where are you from, Matt?" he asked.
Construction didn't always pay that much, so Dad was always taking on
extra jobs during the weekends. Before he married my stepmother, this was a
special problem since he couldn't afford a babysitter and he didn't always trust
my older siblings enough to watch me. He often had to arrange for both my
siblings and I to go with him to various homes or job sites. Sometimes we were
invited into the air conditioned houses and given cookies and other times we had
to wait in the truck with the windows rolled down in the middle of July. The
best job that he took us to was at the mall. He was helping build a boutique, and
the metal barrier was pulled down so that shoppers couldn't come in and we
couldn't get out. Kids would run u p to us and ask through the bars, "Whoa!
How did you get in there? That's so cool!" Time after time we would convince
them that we were magic and could walk through barrier or that we were
millionaires' children who were trapped while the robbers were asking for our
ransom. They usually believed us.
Eventually the mall closed for the
evening and night fell. Dad pulled out the sleeping bags and we each crawled in
and slept while he continued to work into the early morning. Around one or two
he would wake us up and we trudged back out to the truck for the long ride
One weekend after my twenty-first birthday I had come home from school
to see my dad and step-mom. She had to go to Wichita at the last minute to take
care of my sick grandfather. Dad and I were left to our own devices.
He took me to Johnny's Tavern for dinner, which mainly consisted of
tequila. Johnny's is his favorite local bar—it's where everybody knows his name.
I didn't know anyone there, and even though I was introduced to people, it was
pretty clear that I had little in common with the plumbers, electricians, and
carpenters around me. Now and then "city yuppies" came in and ordered white
wine spritzers. They were always laughed out the door. I much prefer a spritzer
to a beer, but I would never tell my father or his comrades for fear of him saying,
"What kind of Mickey Mouse shit is that?"
Dad had promised that we'd only stay an hour, yet one became two and
two became three. By 8:00 his face was cherry red and he could barely stay on
the barstool.
"I think it's about time to go, Dad," I said. "You don't look so good."
"One more drink," he replied as he motioned for bartender to bring me
another margarita. "We'll leave after you drink this." He turned away from me
to talk to the electrician friend they called "Sparky." It was clear that he thought
it would take me awhile to down the lime green drink in front of me. I licked
some of the salt off the rim and started to chug and chug and chug. I slammed
the glass on the counter, wiped my mouth with my sleeve, and looked around
me. All of the friends were staring. My father beamed at me.
"I finished it," I said.
"You sure did," he yelled as he grabbed my shoulder and shook it back
and forth, which I perceived to be a sign of affection. "Did you see her? Did you
see her drink all of that? Did you see her?" he asked his friends. I had never
seen him this excited about anything I'd ever done. Science fairs, spelling bees,
honor rolls, scholarships—it all meant nothing compared to this.
We hit all of Kirksville's hot spots that night. After Dukum we went to II
Spazio, a bar and restaurant that was selling shots for a dollar a piece. Matt and
Tammy took it upon themselves to buy shots in powers of four—first sixteen,
then twenty, then twenty-four. We passed around the little white cups and
threw them back, one at a time. My dad matched us shot for shot until we were
kicked out at 1:30 and had to relocate to a bar with karaoke. I blasted "Girls Just
Wanna Have Fun" with my friends singing backup while my father stayed near
the bartender.
"Everybody out!" yelled the bouncer at 2 a.m. "Finish your drink and
leave!" Looking around for my father, I found him on the far left side of the
bar—red-faced, laughing uproariously, and jolly as old St. Nick.
"Hey, do you guys wanna come to our place?" my father asked a group of
people I'd never met before. "We've got beer.. .and some Cheez-its.. .and I think
some other stuff, too."
I was less than thrilled to have strangers in my home, but I didn't say
anything for fear of ruining the evening.
My father and I were the first to arrive at my apartment. The only thing I
could think of on the way home was the pan of frosted zucchini brownies in my
"Do you want any brownies?" I asked him.
"No, you go ahead." I went to the drawer for a fork and took it and the
entire container of dessert over to my small kitchen table. Dad followed me with
a beer in hand. For a few moments the only sound was my fork scraping the
bottom of the pan.
"You've done really well here," he stated, throwing me from my chocolate
"Thanks," I told him absentmindedly as I kept shoveling cake into my
"No, I mean it," he said slowly. "You've done very well without a lot of
help. I am more proud of you than I could ever say."
My father is not one to give compliments, and I am not one to accept them
well, so we sat in awkward silence. I stared at my oven timer to avoid his gaze.
"Thanks," I replied again, this time quieter, wishing he would just shut up
about it.
"I have so many regrets in my life," he continued. "If I could, I would do
it all differently." My palms started to get sweaty, making it difficult to hold the
fork. "I let your mother alienate me from you and I shouldn't have. I should
have fought harder and I didn't and I'm sorry."
I sat quietly, desperately searching for something to say that would wrap
up the conversation.
"You did what you thought was best," I finally said.
Just then there was a loud banging sound from downstairs. Thundering
footsteps tromped u p the stairs followed by booming knocks and lots of
"Emily! Papa Murdock! Open the fucking door!"
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