The first time I caught him, I was 10 years old. We lived in Iowa but my dad flew into Omaha every day for work. He took me out of school and let me go to work with him one day. I remember wearing a velvet pink skirt and matching top. It had small embroidery flowers around the wrist. I thought it was the most beautiful dress in the world and absolutely perfect for a flight to the big city to spend the day with your dad. His office was at a smaller airport and had large windows that faced the runway. It was huge and had 2 desks side by side. One for him and one for his secretary who was named Lori, just like me. She was tall and thin and beautiful with long brown hair just like mine. I met her once before and I was in awe of her. “Maybe I’ll look like her when I grow up…I thought.” Right now I was just a pudgy 5th grader with huge thick eye glasses in a pink velvet outfit. I wasn’t polished and sophisticated but I knew when Lori the secretary walked in the door that she was exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.
“Hi Lori, I’m so happy to see you, I didn’t know you were coming today.” she said in a velvety voice as she looked not at me but at my dad. “Hi, I said.”, staring down at her high heels. She went to her desk drawer and took out a Tootsie pop and handed it to me. She walked out of the room and my dad followed. I was left alone in the office. I unwrapped my Tootsie pop and looked for the Indian on the wrapper. I walked to the windows with my lollipop stuck between my cheek and my teeth. I leaned my head on the window and looked down at the planes. I’d been in planes my whole life. I named them off in my head…that’s a Baron, that’s a Cesena, that’s a Commander…the juice from my lollipop began to drip out of my mouth onto my Mary Jane shoes. I sucked in really hard to prevent more from dripping. My mom would be mad if I messed up my shoes so I took them off and went to find a tissue to clean them. I opened the center drawer of my dad’s desk. I didn’t find a tissue. I found a Polaroid of him sitting in the chair I was sitting in. His legs were spread apart and he had his hand between his legs with his middle finger pointing up. I didn’t know what it meant but I didn’t like it. I shut the door and decided to go to Lori’s desk. I opened the middle drawer and found a Polaroid of her making the same pose. I quickly shut the door and crawled under the space where her chair went. My young mind couldn’t make sense of what I saw. My shoeless rights snagged on the nubby carpet. I went to my knees and took my Mary Jane’s and rubbed the slobber off them onto that carpet. I knelt for a while and thought about planes and flying and my mother but no matter how much I tried to think about something else, all I saw where those Polaroids. My legs were falling asleep, I needed to stand. I crawled out from under the desk and rubbed knees. My tights were bumpy from the intentions the nubby carpet made. I heard laughing and my dad and the other Lori walked in. My dad gave other Lori some tasks to do and he asked me to go to lunch. I didn’t make eye contact with either of them. I simply put my shoes back on and followed behind my dad out the door. I never wanted to go back to that office again. It was never an issue. That was the first and last time my dad ever took me to work with him. Not because I didn’t want to go but because of what happened that night.
We started the airplane engine and buckled in to take off. It was a Baron, a six seat small plane and I was riding co-pilot. I loved to ride co-pilot. It was dark outside already and snowing at a good pace. I was shivering in my seat but happy to be going home. The flight was short, only about 30 minutes. We taxied down the runway and my dad got clearance from the tower to take off. Up we went and I was so thankful to watch that town get smaller and smaller as we flew home. My dad always did a steep take off and sharp turn. I loved the feel of the pull when he pushed the plane to the edge. I giggled when my stomach did some flips. One thing about my dad and I is that we love adrenaline. When we leveled out he did a maneuver I loved where he made me weightless. It only lasted a few seconds but it was incredible. If you had a saltine cracker, you could let go of it and it would float before dropping to your lap. I didn’t have saltines today but I could see them all the same suspended in front of me just like my body. The only thing holding me to the seat was my seatbelt. My behind wasn’t touching the seat and my feet weren’t touching the ground. “Again, again!” I say with pure joy emanating from my child’s heart. I look at my father and he isn’t responding. He’s looking out the window and pushing the button of the radio. He’s asking the tower for permission to land. There is ice forming on our wings. We are forced to turn around and land back in Omaha. We make it to the big airport. The plane hadn’t even had time to warm up. I’m frozen as I climb out of the plane and my dad helps me down from the landing on the wing. “Sorry kiddo”, he says. We take a cab to a hotel by the airport. It’s not a nice hotel but its close and it’s only for one night he keeps reminding me. We have no clothes, no toothbrush, no stuffed animals and most importantly, no mother to tuck me in. My dad puts on the TV and he leaves saying he’ll be right back. I’m hungry. I watch some shows on TV. He doesn’t come back. I watch the news and there’s a story about the snow storm and all the planes that couldn’t take off. He’s still not back. I’m tired but I’m too terrified to sleep. There is a vent above the door and all I can think about it someone climbing into my room through that vent. I’m shaking but I’m not sure if it’s from still being chilled to the bone or the sheer terror of being alone in a hotel room. Johnny Carson is on now. I sit at the foot of the bed and pick at the snags in my tights. I want to cry but no one will hear me or maybe someone will but they may be a bad person so I keep quiet. I want to stay invisible. I want to stop thinking about the photos I saw. I want my mother. I hear a key in the door. “Please let it be my dad”, I think. It is my dad. I pretend to be asleep on the floor. He doesn’t call for me. Doesn’t check on me. Doesn’t he know I’ve never been left alone at home let alone in a hotel in a big city? I’m petrified. I hear him pee in the bathroom. It’s along pee. My cheek is itching from the carpet but I dare not move. He walks past me and climbs into bed. He smells different. I recognize it’s alcohol but also something else. It’s musty and sweaty and I realize later in life he smelled like sex. I make it through the night waking up between his snoring. I hate it when I wake up because I re-smell him. I’m so terrified to move. My mother was going to be furious. Wait, I can’t tell my mother. It would hurt her. I decide right then not to say a word to him or her about anything that happened. We flew home the next day. I didn’t talk to my dad for entire year and he didn’t even notice. I would nod and smile and maybe I said yes or no but I willfully did not have one conversation with him for an entire year. He never asked me about school or my girl scouts or gymnastics. He never attended one event. He was in Omaha all week and home on some weekends. We didn’t matter. I had proof now. That’s the way it was and I've spent my whole life trying to prove we mattered.
You know the feeling of having a word on the tip of your tongue?
You can't quite place it, but it lingers and haunts you for days on end.
When I met you, that feeling went away.
Your name was the word I'd been searching for I didn't know I needed.
Every morning and every evening, your name became my daily prayer.
With one encounter all the words fell into place and my purpose on this planet seemed destined for your embrace.
Many seasons come and go but March signals spring and sneaks in like fire
All look towards Oklahoma skies where sneaky clouds loom and conspire
Reaching and twisting they come to the ground
Coiled in wrath they take all in their path
Hope resonates amid their the mire wishing for sounds of children in a choir.
The Kitchen Table
My mother was a master at being a homemaker. The house was spotless and she was always cooking and caring for someone. She spent her free time obsessively decorating herself and the house. I have visions of my mom wearing all white with frosted hair, heels and enough gold adorning her body to make Ft. Knox jealous. She was an 80’s mom that took her fashion cues from watching Erica Cane on All My Children and Krystle Carrington on Dynasty. I came home many times after school to see her talking on the home phone with a cord long enough to reach outside so she could sit by the pool and smoke while drinking a coke or an occasional rum and coke while gossiping. These were the Camelot years for my family. Well…mostly…
I pulled into the driveway in my canary yellow jeep. Roof off, a cassette tape of Depeche Mode blaring as I took the turn a little too quickly and crunched a few of my mom’s precious Lilly of the Valley flowers. I hoped out and fluffed them up before opening the garage door. There was a new BMW in the garage. “Sweet”, I thought. I’ll be driving that baby tonight. But wait, a new car, that must mean my dad is home. As I approached the door, I could hear him inside. “You cock sucker no good mother fucking dick breath prick!” my dad bellowed. “I will fuck you all the way to god damn Mexico if you don’t wire that money to me today.” He’s pacing and his face is red. He’s wearing a MC Hammer style jogging suit. White with Neon green and blue designs. He looks ridiculous. A thick gold chain lays brightly against his reddened skin. His glasses are tinted dark. A gold Rolex flashes from his wrist. He looks like fat Elvis I think. A mad fat Elvis in the basement of a house in Omaha, Nebraska. It doesn’t fit but it’s what it is. We live in an affluent part of town and everyone is pretty much living the same life except our family. We are odd but we don’t know. Fat Elvis is so irate that he doesn’t notice my six year old little sister walking around in a suit jacket carrying a briefcase with a pretend phone pacing around the next room screaming “You mother fucker, I told you to send me money!”. My dad doesn’t acknowledge me either. I take my sister, Jeni upstairs and find my mom doing laundry. A poster of Tom Selleck hangs above the washer. She’s looking at it. “Hey mom.”, I say. “Hi Lori honey”, she says as she gives me a hug and scoops up Jeni. (I don’t tell her about what I heard her say downstairs) She’s pregnant and the weight of my sister who everyone calls affectionately, “Beasty”, is a strain on her tiny body. I didn’t want her to pick up Jeni, I was worried about her being pregnant at 36. Jeni’s birth almost killed her. I would have done anything to protect my mother.
When Jeni was born her mother told her she needed another child like she needed a hole in her head. Now she’s pregnant again with child number 4. I wonder what she said to her when she told her about this baby. It doesn’t matter, my mom always wanted to be a mom and she is great at it. She’s the kind of mom that sees the best in everyone, even my dad.
Beasty doesn't like to be held long. She’s soon scrambling out of my mother’s hug and wrapping a tea towel around her neck. She goes to the kitchen drawer and takes out a knife and fork. The cat is hiding at the edge of the kitchen cabinets. Jeni is walking with determined confidence but as she rounds the corner, the cat leaps and attacks her. Not like a paw swipe but a full body pounce….claws out…teeth digging into the neck assault. My mom doesn’t seem to notice. I look from my mom to the Beast and back to my mom. Normal daily activity around here I guess. Beasty rips the attached cat from her corduroy blazer and starts chasing the cat, knife and fork in hand, screaming “Come back here chicken, I’m going to cook you!”. Mom is gazing at Tom Sellack above the washer and folding my dad’s big fat tighty-whitey underwear. “Do you want to go look at lamps with me?, she asks. “Sure” I say even though I’ve gone with her several times already to look at lamps and she just buys whichever ones she wants. My opinion means nothing. We have a lot of lamps. We have a lot of everything. One year she had 14 Christmas trees decorated in our house….14!
We leave the Beast with my dad, which is always a risky move, but we are lamp shopping…one store and then back home. I should have known better that it wouldn’t be one store and done. By the time we got home my mother had purchased lamps, a new kitchen table, Christmas ornaments (it was June) but they were on sale and they were angels and she loved angels and knew it was a sign she should buy them.
We made it home with our haul of goodies but when we pulled into the driveway the garage door was open with no car inside. My mom went into mom mode face. She stared into space going through whatever it is a mom goes through and just said “Emergency Room”, like she saw a vision. We head to the hospital closest to our house and sure enough they are there. The Beast is getting stitches and has a broken arm. My dad was talking to the Dr. and when we approach we can hear him say “Well, we generally need to do a potential child abuse report every time a child comes in but your story is so over the top that we know it was an accident.”. “Next time don’t use duct tape to attach anything to your child. Thank you Mr. Bourke?”
“Duct tape?” my mom whispers to herself
“She wanted to be a god damn helicopter Anita. I’m on the phone with Senor Aguesse about a helicopter deal and she’s hears me talking about it and she’s monkeying around me saying she wants a helicopter and I find her one to play with and she doesn’t want it…she wants to BE a helicopter…not play with a toy one…be one. After 4 hours of that bullshit, I tell her to go out and get me a stick and I’ll turn her into a helicopter. So I duct tapped the stick to her head.” He says this like it’s a normal option for turning a kid into a helicopter. My mom puts her hand over her mouth. “It just pulled out some of her hair Anita. The kids’s fine.”
“So how did she break her arm Jim?”
“Oh that, well after that Todd came home and they were playing outside. They asked if they could roll down the driveway in garbage cans and I said yes. Apparently Todd rolled over Jeni and broke her arm.” My mother started tearing up. “And the stiches?” “Come on Anita, don’t cry, the kids fine, they didn’t even numb the eye for the stitches, she’s tough.” My mom looks like she’s going to vomit. She sits down in a chair and I sit next to her both of us giving my dad a “look”.
The Beast emerges from the ER room in a wheelchair. She’s all smiles but looks horrific with bandages all over her face and a blue cast on her right arm. My mom leaps us and kneels down next to her stroking her patchy blond hair. More than a few strands were pulled out by the duct tape. She looks like a plucked chicken. My father is carrying around a big suitcase phone. It’s ringing. He leaves talking to someone in broken Spanish. My mom and I take Jeni and Todd to get ice cream. By the time we get home, it’s dinner time.
“What in the hell is that?”, my dad says. “It’s a new kitchen table. Lori and I got it today. Do you like it?”, my mom asks. “For you yes, but for me and anyone else in the world, NO! Someone is going to get hurt on that thing. It looks rickety as hell, my mom will break through that chair at Thanksgiving.” “Oh Jim, it’s rattan, it’s sturdy. No one will get hurt.”, said my mom to which my dad chirps...“And that glass top? That’s stiches waiting to happen with our kids. What were you thinking Anita?”
My mom looks dejected and my dad just looks angry. He goes into the living room to watch football and I help my mom cook dinner. “I love the new table mom”, I say. “It reminds me of something you would see in a beach house.” “Thanks Lori.”, is all she says as she peels potatoes. I want to ask her right then why do you stay with him, but I don’t.
We are at the new table and dinner is ready. Todd is late and walks in reading a comic book. He’s always reading comic books. My dad hates them. “Todd, put that thing down and eat. Your mother went to a lot of work to prepare this meal.” Says my dad in a gruff voice. We say grace. We pass potatoes. Todd asks for catsup. I get up to get it. I open the refrigerator door and the cat jumps out. “My chicken!”, Jeni squeals and she leaps out of her chair to chase the terrified thing. My dad screams at her to get back to the dinner table and that’s when it happens. The chair he’s sitting on starts to crack. His glass eye looks straight ahead but his good eye is piercing anger and fear as he lands on his fat Elvis butt on the kitchen floor. “I told you this was a piece of shit!”, He takes his chair and drags it into the living room. My mom follows him in. All of us kids just freeze. Cussing and cracking sounds come from the next room. My dad approaches the kitchen and I sit petrified. “Get up”, he says. We scatter together by the sink. My mom is in the doorway and is mouthing “stay out of his way”. He drags every chair in to the living room. Three sets of eyes peek around the corner. He breaking them apart and burning them in the fireplace. “You stupidiot”, said Jeni. (This was how she combined stupid and idiot.) We all laughed and had our dinner as a picnic on the floor.
I looked inside and found myself.
The lies I lived were now outspoken.
Echoes of them stacked neatly on a shelf.
Pull out an echo and they all come tumbling down.
My eyes blind to what I see but my heart feels each one perfectly.
With each pulsating beat the truth is revealed and my sight is restored.
All I have to do is open the next door.
I sat in the front seat of my black Ford Expedition and stared out into the parking lot. A curious bug flying too quickly slams into the windshield and I thought “appropriate” as I watched a ripped wing from its newly lifeless body fly off into the air. The stain it left looked like a sad teapot…”also appropriate” I said out loud to myself.
My teenage passenger had yet to arrive. I’ve waited for this child in so many ways. I had her at 40. She was 2 weeks overdue and came in at 9.4lbs and nearly killed me…literally, my last image before her birth was the ass of an OBGYN straddling my body and pushing her out while another OBGYN pulled. It was traumatic and she’s been dramatic ever since. Today would be no exception.
“Ahhh, here she comes...finally” She walks as slowly as possible towards the car, her long brown hair softly frames her angelic face. Gabrielle, I named her after an arc angel. She’s a warrior with an internal sadness I can’t undo. She’s everything I’m not. I need lots of help raising her but today it will be just the two of us. She slides into the car, peers to the back seat, sneers and turns around without looking at me. I hit play…Taylor Swift. “Really mom…I can’t...you are so cringy.”, she says unamused. “What would you like to listen to?”, I ask. She answers me by putting in her airpods and curling into a ball with her head resting against the window against her favorite stuffed animal, “Funny Bunny”, given to her by my mother.
This will be a long day.
We drive north from Oklahoma City, its March but surprisingly warm. The drive is dotted with barren trees that look like black lace against the sunrise. Wind turbines stand taller than the squatty Oklahoma trees and scattered birds are the only wild life I see. I heard that environmentalist were against the wind turbines because of bird fatalities. I spend my time watching these turbines and birds interact and I did not encounter one death. Oklahoma has smart birds I think to myself. Maybe these birds that hit the turbines are suicidal or visually impaired? Maybe the birds really aren’t real just like QANON says. Tiny drones recharging on phone lines…maybe the turbines house the bird done factories and maybe when a drone messes up a mission they slam it into the blade of the turbine…they should check for blood when the birds impact….yes, that would solve that issue once and for all…I think about birds and turbines far too long but I’m happy to have them to occupy my mind. I need a distraction right now.
The last 800 times I took this drive was with my mother. The drives weren’t always from Oklahoma but the destination was always the same….home. The only home we’ve ever really had, Shubert, Nebraska. My parents met there in 6thgrade. My mother’s mother was a teacher and drove the kids from Shubert (population 150…on a good day) to the neighboring metropolis, Falls City (population 5,000) to school. My father went to the public school and my mother and her brother went to the catholic school. My grandmother often told the story of how she made my dad sit in the front seat so he wouldn’t be next to my mom. She often caught him looking at her in the rear view mirror. This began years of my grandmother’s failed attempts at interceding to get my mother as far away from my father as possible. She sent my mom to an all-girls college after high school…it didn’t work. They were destined to be together.
My 'Swifty" hating teen and I stopped as we always stopped, at the Cracker Barrel, mid-way to our destination. We went in but it wasn't the same without my mom. She loved to buy anything in Cracker Barrel and she took hours looking at everything. I learned not to protest and would wait patiently on an outdoor rocker while she and my daughter shopped. Gabrielle is my daughter's name. "Named after an angel", my mom would say. They had a special bond, one I was excluded from. It was fine with me. They giggled and told stories and I took photos of them and wrote down memories. I had always been an active observer in their relationship. I'm sure my mom was like that with me when I was growing up? I relished watching them bond and this drive and this Cracker Barrel were part of so many of our good times together. I didn't know how Gabrielle would take Cracker Barrel without my mom here. I watched her gently brush through the brightly colored tunics and turn over some sparkly snow globes. She gave a slight smile when she saw a small blue bird paperweight. This makes sense. My mom loved bluebirds and pennies. She thought her dad sent them to her from heaven. We were constantly looking for Papa's pennies. Neither of us felt like buying anything, we walked back to the car without rocking. I slid into the driver's side and spied a penny on my console. I got out of the car and grabbed Gabrielle's hand before she could open her door. I reached into my purse and pulled out 1 more penny. I didn't say a word as I walked her back towards the Cracker Barrel. "Mom, what are we doing?, this is sad for me now...please, lets go." She pulled back and I stopped. I faced her and placed a penny in her hand with a knowing look. She followed me. We each placed a penny on the armrest of the rocker my mom used to rock in and the one Gaby used to rock in. We walked back to the car and continued our drive in silence.
We pulled into town just before two. The white house was standing proudly, waiting for our arrival. My uncle was outside to greet us. He followed us out to St. Ann's. The gate was open and 2 hawks were circling overhead. The fields of corn were barren and a stillness hushed over the prairie. Four reddish stones stood strong. Two on each side of an empty space. A stone statue of the cross and Mary and Joseph dwarfed everything worldly in this space. They were ready for us. The tent was pitched and a green tarp covered the space where my mother would rest for eternity.
Gabrielle and I stood with the last strands of strength we had left. I popped the trunk of my Ford Expedition and the men that were there from the mortuary guided my mother out of the car in her golden casket adorned with four white angels. "We did it, Gabrielle, I said with tears in my eyes. We brought her home." I planned to have some time alone out there before guest arrived. Time for just Gaby and me. We sat on the ground next to my mom and Abba's "I believe in Angels lilted from the car stereo on repeat. As the first guests arrived, we composed ourselves. The service was beautiful simply because that's what you are supposed to say. I don't remember much of it, but I do remember, my daughter's hand grabbing mine to stay back when all others had gone. "We'll see you at the church.", I call out to my uncle and do a slight head motion towards Gabrielle. He nods and takes his leave. "I love you mommy.", she says. "I love you too angel", I say. She opens my hand and places a penny in it. "Let's leave these here for Nonni.", she says. The look she gave me in that moment was transcending. I became the child and she was comforting me. We placed the pennies into the space where she would lay and walked hand in hand back to the car forever changed.