The Madness of the Left-Handed McKennedy Women: A Short Story

I grew up knowing that left-handed women in my family go mad in their fortieth year. I’m not sure anyone explained this to me. The madness of the left-handed McKennedy women was a fact that settled into our knowing. The sun rises in the east, dogs bark, rain is wet, left-handed McKennedy women go mad after forty.

The last mad McKennedy woman was sent away the year I was born. I have no memories of her, yet Agnes feels like mine. She went mad my year. 1961.

Was it because of me? Did her madness begin on the day I was born?

These questions bloomed in my head before I learned to write, during those years when family forced crayons, chalk, and my toothbrush into my right hand, mumbling prayers about left hands, madness, and aunt Agnes.

The other “fact” I grew up knowing was that I should not use my left hand to eat, draw, or write.

“What’s the point in having two hands?” I protested once at dinner. I was six or seven and already burning to use my left hand because they told me I shouldn’t.

“Why?!” I insisted.

Mom and dad stared at each other across the creamed corn and smothered snap beans. Then my brother blurted out, “She’s already gone mad! She’s probably a lefty. You should send her away!”

They grounded Ronald, whose left hand was never restricted, for a week, but “lefty” became his whispered taunt, as I know you’re a lefty threats and See ya lefty! greetings.

Childhood Secrets

I went through school using my right hand in public, especially around family, but in the secret corners of my days, I practiced spelling words in cursive, drawing trees, and brushing my teeth with my left hand. Through those years I asked myself Why do left-handed women in my family go mad? and Will I go mad?

The madness was on my mom’s side of the family: the McKennedy line. Mom’s not a McKennedy and her mom wasn’t either, but by blood they spring from the mad McKennedy women. As do I.

I grew up listening to old people debating how far back the madness goes.

Who knows how many women went mad before Lulie and Cora?

Someone should research our family history.

But no one came forward.

Our Family History

The mad history that was passed down to us began in 1905, with two sisters and a cousin: Lulie Dee, Hattie Jo, and Cora Rue. They were born within eighteen months of each other, lived on the same block, and grew up as a unit, running between houses. Here comes the gaggle of girls! Some of my great-great uncles called them The Triad.

A Note from the Teacher

Cora, the cousin, and the older sister, Lulie, were one year ahead of Hattie in school. Their first-grade teacher sent a disturbing note home to the mothers. In one sweep of her right hand, she admonished the parents for allowing this left-hand deviation and expressed sympathy to them for being parents of left-hand deviants.

What happened next depends on who tells the story. The news wasn’t received equally by the McKennedy sisters, the moms of Lulie and Cora.

Evangeline, Lulie’s mom, protested. “There’s nothing wrong with Lulie! She was born this way, and I won’t allow her to be tortured and retrained.”

Her husband disagreed, and Lulie arrived at school with Cora, where the cousins were instructed to wait at the door until the instructor tied their left hands behind their backs.

Unlike Evangeline, Cora’s mom Kathleen was apologetic. Her parenting anxiety spiked when she read the teacher’s note. To compensate, she greeted Cora at the door after school with the homework/dinner rope.

The Triad

The spin off stories about The Triad are numerous and contradictory. One constant is Hattie. On the one hand, she’s remembered for her heroic efforts to heal The Triad. On the other, about thirty four years later, she would serve as the catalyst for the left-handed madness theory:

The Triad ate the same things, played in the same spaces, slept in the same beds. Since Hattie is right-handed, it stands to reason that Lulie and Cora went mad because they are the left-handed.

Cora dropped out of school after ninth grade. At sixteen she married Woodrow, a man whose indifference to the debate about the dominant hand allowed Cora to live her left-handed life without judgment inside the walls of her home, just two blocks down from her childhood home.

Lulie finished high school then left for college. Her mother coddled her privately, whispering damnations about the schools, society, and retraining measures.

“They have no business shaming anyone for their nature!”

I can only imagine Lulie’s stupor when in the next breath Evangeline encouraged her to keep up the right-hand ruse at school, around relatives, and especially at church.

They say Hattie knew. Surely that would give Lulie comfort, having a safe space to share her secret and small victories of resistance.

Judging from the consistency of the stories about the shock that shook the community, Lulie’s secret was well-kept for most of her teen years. The stories go something like this: Tommy, from around the corner, was at college with Lulie. He came home for summer break and spilled Lulie’s lefty beans.

Lulie’s Beans

Maybe there’s more to Tommy, but I don’t like him. He’s a traitor, especially since he witnessed the torment Cora and Lulie suffered from first grade on. He had to know his words would hurt Lulie.

The beans spilled at the dinner table, where he told his parents he saw Lulie taking notes with her left hand in biology class. His mom Bet told her sister Louise, who told her friend Lucile, who told the preacher’s wife… By Sunday church, the whole congregation knew: Lulie’s a lefty! This was before anyone strung together the notion that the left-handed McKennedy women would go mad.

The shockwave in the community pushed The Triad back together.

The threesome against the world!

Hattie started college the year after Tommy spilled Lulie’s secret. When Lulie and Hattie visited home from college, they spent most of their time at Cora’s. Lulie’s father barely looked at or acknowledged Lulie. He threatened to discontinue payments for her university courses. Somehow Evangeline managed to stop that nonsense.

Lulie and Hattie graduated, then moved away to take jobs and marry (it’s unclear which came first).

Cora bore Woody four children and worked as his bookkeeper for the family lumber business. Although Cora was shamed out of school, she was sharp as a tack, good at math. With her left hand! When Woody was called to serve in the Second World War, he left Cora with a fifth baby in her belly and a business to manage.

Woody didn’t return from the war.

The Madness of the Left-Handed Cousins

Cora’s madness was reported first. The news about Woody was hard on the whole family, especially Cora. Winona, Cora’s first-born, and Cora’s mom, Kathleen, made arrangements for Cora at a sanatorium.

It’s temporary.

I think Winny knew better. You don’t raise your baby brother as your own son if you expect your mom will return. Winny took over the lumber business.

The news of Lulie came a few months later, in September of 1946. Lulie and her husband had no children. Some blame Lulie, but who really knows? Maybe Cal was sterile. Maybe they didn’t want children. Cal returned from the war and after two months (and two days shy of her forty-first birthday) he had Lulie committed to an asylum.

The year of the cousins’ madness coincided with Abram Blau’s maddening publication, The Master Hand, which warned that left-handed children would suffer severe and life-long mental problems.

I doubt any of the women or men of the town read the treatise, but when they got wind of the theories, they stood, shaking their heads, forming a W with their arms, palms to the sky, whispering Cora and Lulie’s names.

And Hattie’s just fine, don’t you know.

In a family of Irish and Scottish blood, thick with legends and folklore, the story of Lulie and Cora sufficed to put the narrative of the mad McKennedy legend on the loom.

More Madness

In 1956, Winona, Cora and Woody’s first-born, went mad. Like her mom, Winny suffered retraining in the schools. She went mad days after her fortieth birthday. Indisputable, was a word used after her breakdown at a church gathering, where she accused her cousin Fanny of making moves on her husband, Ed. Most blamed Cora for allowing Winny to use her left hand, and all of the family leaves out the part where Ed divorced Winny less than a year later. Winny’s family business and Ed’s attentions went to Fanny.

The next reported case was a year or two later, still in the fifties. We don’t know much about her history, except that she was a lefty, descended from McKennedys through Geraldine, mother of Margaret, mother of Bernice, mother of Harriet, mother of Suzanne. Susan? Her name varies depending on who’s telling it. Her birth year is also foggy. Some say Suzanne went mad in her fortieth year, others say she made it to forty five. Her family didn’t send her away at first, but then she nearly burned down the house.

It’s not safe to keep her.

Finally, in 1961, the year I was born, aunt Agnes.

My Left Hand

As I listened to these stories growing up, I would massage and stretch my left hand. I wanted to champion the left hand, to protect my hand —all the left hands!— from this family lore. I wondered if there were fewer left-handed McKennedy women now because they truly weren’t or because they trained themselves not to be. The matter-of-factness of the voices that told stories to perpetuate the legend incensed me.

I came out as a lefty after my first year of college. My mom’s sisters accused me of being a lefty on purpose.

“You’re not really left-handed. You’re just rebelling!”

My mom was clearly annoyed with me, a fearful You’ll go mad! stitched on her face. My brother made snarky remarks openly, and my dad had a permanent smirk on his face. Was he proud of me? After I came out, I understood that dad never embraced the family legend, and that mom’s family lore had probably driven a wedge between my parents. Were they taking bets on my impending madness?

I needed to escape. I remembered the graduation card from my mom’s aunt Deidre. She was always prompt with cards and gifts for special occasions. At the bottom, she wrote, “Come visit me anytime.”

“Does she mean it?”

Mom shrugged, still annoyed, then looked up her phone number. “Ask her yourself.”

Great Aunt Deidre

Three days later, I drove ten hours to aunt Deidre’s house on the bay.

I arrived as the sun was setting. My great aunt Deidre was on point.

“Drop your bags here,” she said pointing at a spot in the foyer as she hurried me through the house to her deck where two glasses and a bottle of wine waited for us. Surely she heard I came out, but we finished our wine and the sunset without talking about left hands.

Dinner was ready and waiting in the oven. Baked oysters, creamy shrimp casserole, and broccoli. I realized as I saw dinner come out of the oven aunt Deidre was my most exotic relative. That truth persists.

I honestly never suspected a thing. She hid it well. I may have never known if I hadn’t asked Deidre for her shrimp recipe after dinner.

The Shrimp Recipe

“Sure. Go fetch a tablet and a pen from my study.”

When I returned with the tablet and pen, she had refilled our wine glasses and was holding up the card from her recipe box.

“Is this OK?” I asked, offering her the pen and tablet.

“Perfect,” she said, pushing my glass to me and swaying around her stool to sit with the card and tablet.

I was taking a sip when through my goblet I saw her pick up the pen with her left hand! She started writing.

I paused a bit too long with the sip because she saw me see her. An amused look spread across her face, not unlike the smirk dad couldn’t wipe from his face when I came out. She brought the pen to her lips with her left hand.

“Shh.”

“But how?” was all I could manage.

“I have my ways,” she answered with a hint that she might share her secrets. Then the business of writing the recipe occupied her. I stared as words spilled with natural ease from her left hand.

“Well, why then?” I asked, sensing she might never spill her secret hows.

Deidre’s Closet

“Oh darling, who wouldn’t? They would have driven me to madness long ago with their fear of me going mad.” My eyes were on her hand as she wrote more. “That’s how it happens, you know. You… they say you manufacture… no, that’s not the word… you make it happen…”

“Manifest?”

“Yes! Manifest! They’re madness manifesters! All their retraining and prejudices.”

“So you write with both hands,” I was in a state of thrill and awe.

“Not if I can help it. Honestly, you don’t write much in front of other people after you’re done with school. Checks. I practiced my signature a lot, but ‘practiced,’ isn’t what you think. It was to get my left hand to sign like my right hand.”

I needed more than a stool, so I staggered to the table and collapsed in a chair, calculating Deidre’s age and thumbing through my memories of her, not a single memory of her writing.

“But eating!” I exclaimed.

“If anyone called me out, I told them I favored European table manners, which isn’t untrue.”

Confused

I sat with this news: Deidre, also my most-traveled relative, was a closet lefty. How did she live so many days hiding her dominant hand from her family, especially from her meddling aunts, sisters, and female cousins? How many days? I began calculating her age.

Hearing my thoughts, Deidre announced, “I’m seventy one.” She handed me the recipe. “It’ll be easier for you.”

So they did tell her I came out. “Mom told me that she ‘just didn’t want me to live through…'”

“‘… all those hardships.’ Yeah, yeah. I told myself that for years. I hid my hand for years to avoid the ‘hardships.’ But you know what? That was a hardship. Maybe harder.”

I stared at the recipe without reading it, soaking in Deidre, her story, her grace, what later that evening she would call her grave error when comparing herself to me.

The recipe shook in my left hand, which tingled with something like fear. “I think I made a mistake.”

“Oh, honey, coming out was the right thing to do.”

Confessions

“No!” The sting in my eyes pulled at my jaws. “I’m not!”

“You’re not what?”

“I’m not left-handed.”

“But why?”

“Because the stories made me so angry! I wanted to prove they were wrong, be left-handed and never go mad.”

Deidre joined me at the table and reached across with both hands.

“And this is how I failed you, isn’t it?”

I looked up, my cheeks wet now. I looked at her realizing she was right. If I had known, maybe forcing my hand wouldn’t have felt necessary.

“I just wanted to help,” I moaned.

Coming Out

Aunt Deidre came out as a lefty on her seventy-forth birthday.

“See, I’m not mad!” she exclaimed as part of her announcement.

This didn’t stop the meddlesome aunts from whispering otherwise. I wanted to tell them you drive us mad! I also wondered if mine wasn’t the madness, pretending to be left-handed to prove them wrong.

Deidre had another secret: her dedication to our genealogical history. She approached the project with a single-minded effort to refute the McKennedy madness, through personal correspondence, medical and school records, and news clippings. The year she came out, she published this family book, naming all of the left-handed McKennedy women she unearthed, the mad and the not so mad, proving that the left-handed madness lore was unfounded.

Predictably, the McKennedy legend lives on in some families, mostly as a weapon. One hissy fit from a left-handed forty-something wife and the husband exclaims, “See? She’s mad!” Or, should a forty-year-old mother who writes with her left hand get too heated in an argument, her son insists, “She’s got the madness.”

Yesterday I celebrated my seventieth birthday. I never undid my coming out. Some family members still think I’m left-handed, especially when recalling that day some thirty years ago at a family reunion when I had a fight with aunt Gladys.

Legacies

We laid Deidre’s body to rest shy of her ninety-fifth birthday, her only madness the time and money she threw at refuting a family fable that won’t die. I have a collection of letters and notes from relatives about left-handed women now, because I inherited Deidre’s legacy: the copyright of her book. Many are petitions to update the book, which I disregard. The book is perfect as it is. I ponder the fates of Lulie and Cora. Winny and Suzanne. Agnes.

Did the retraining drive Lulie and Cora mad?

Deidra writes.

Maybe Lulie went mad because Cal couldn’t give her children? Maybe Cora went mad because Woody left her alone with five? By the time Winny, Suzanne, and Agnes came along, they were expected to go mad. What if they just had one bad day beyond their fortieth year and were hauled away because madness was expected?

I wonder especially about Agnes. I know my birth had no bearing on her lot. Deidre couldn’t prove she didn’t go mad, but there were circumstances to consider.

Did anyone consider her broken heart after her fiancé of eleven years bailed? Maybe she needed a friendly ear and a good cry, not a padded room.

I went back to visit Deidre several times before she died. We didn’t speak it or write it, but we forgave each other for whatever might be considered shortcomings. We understood we were on different paths to a common goal: to demystify our mad family history.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
For more fiction (stories and poems), go to Stories and Poems.

#WEP Challenge: The Great Wave Metaphor

#WEP is a bimonthly writing challenge. #WEP is a writing community and partners with #IWSG (Insecure Writers Support Group). This year is the Year of the Art; all six prompts are works of art. Visit the links to find out more about #IWSG and #WEP, and to read other submissions. Be supportive! Leave comments on the writers’ blog posts. And here please!

This is my first #WEP submission. The prompt for this challenge is The Great Wave, a woodblock print by Japanese artist Hokusai. You can find out more about the print in the link on the screenshot.

WEP Great Wave

We all face an impossible wave at some point. Ours is Alzheimer’s. I’ve used several metaphors to describe my mom’s Alzheimer’s journey, the word “journey” being one of them, bull, bumper cars, and others. Today, I’m standing in this metaphor: the Great Wave.

The Great Wave Metaphor

I take a couple of steps in.

The waves are barely…

…a lap of foam against my toes.

Then another wave. Charging line of water, sand, and fragments cover my feet.

I stand in my own metaphor.

Is this how it begins?

Imperceptible force. A lap of water?

The wave collapses, drawing tiny shells, bits of sand back into the ocean’s mystery.

I take another step.

Do I have a choice?

“I don’t like it!” The words rise like a wave, above the gravel in mom’s throat.

“What?” dad asks, but he knows the answer.

“Being alone!”

Her voice can be strong, her words solid, especially when she’s angry.

“But you’re not alone. The sitters are with you.”

“I don’t like it!” she repeats, strong, riding this wave of frustration. “Who likes that? Someone always…”

The wave begins to collapse, her words fail her. She waves both hands frantically behind her as she takes a step forward.

“…following you?” I ask.

“Yeah, who likes that?”

“It’s to keep you safe. What if you fall?”

“I don’t like it!”

None of us do.

Do we have a choice?

Sometimes she falls… the waves.

Mom’s still waving a hand behind her, shooing away the sitter who’s already left for the day, who followed her all the day.

“Who likes someone…” her hands brandishing in the air, “even to the bathroom. I guess I took too long and…”

“She came to check on you?” I ask, actively guiding mom away from the collapsing conversation.

“I just want to be with my people.”

“I guess I just need to quit…” dad begins, the riptide pulling him under.

The wave often has its way with us, sucking us in, under.

This is hard.

I take mom by the elbow. She resists a bit. I’m interrupting.

“You’re trying to stop me…”

Yes, I don’t want her to spin dad into an argument he’ll regret, and she’ll forget. Her words will rise, hurtful, then collapse on themselves, rolling back out, forgotten.

“C’mon. Let’s go to my house.”

I take her hand and guide her into our afternoon routine: a walk to my house, the dirty dishes, small chores she can still do, she likes to do.

Mom likes to help, be needed but she struggles against the waves and currents. They batter her small frame. The riptide buckles her knees.

“My legs don’t know what they want to do.”

I’m holding her hand as we walk to my house, tightening my grip against the pull of her legs. Another wave of symptoms? Her legs do their own thing, hurling her forward, sideways, sometimes backwards.

“I’ve got you.”

But do I?

I just want to be with my people, but her people are busy and scattered.

Sometimes I submerge myself before it hits, let the wave wash above me, gently pulling my limbs, swirling my hair.

My children like to dive headfirst into the waves. Total control.

None of us know how to ride it.

This is so hard.

I stand in this metaphor, lurching back as the wave hits me, inching forward with the riptide, waiting for answers.

Mom dove into the disease headfirst.

“I think it started,” she told me one day about four years ago. “I’m having trouble remembering things.”

Bull by the horns, dive into the wave.

We know about waves in our family. We watched helpless as a great wave pulled my dad’s mom under. My shy, small grandmother sunk fast, fighting sitters, swearing, violent then diminished. Then it came after my mom’s mom. My stern, strong grandmother drifted into the waters, lost, uncharacteristically meek and needy. The wave batters the mind, not just the memories, but also the quirks, the personality, broken pieces of shell, unrecognizable, battered into sand.

Mom knew her wave might come.

Standing in the surf, in a family history of waves, a broken shell lodges between my toes.

This hurts.

The insistent thrashing of shells that crack, splinter, and shatter, tiny rivers of foam and sand chasing the waves back to sea.

“I don’t like this!”

It’s hard to move freely in the surges and swells, water battering our control, wearing us down.

“Sometimes we don’t use good words,” mom says as we walk through the field to my house, the sitter long gone, most of the day behind us.

“You had a hard day?” I ask, knowing that she probably hurled ugly words at the sitter earlier.

“I don’t like…” another flourish as she waves her free hand.

I hold her back as her legs pull her forward. We stop a moment to get control. She looks up.

“You have clothes on the line.”

Her voice changes. Laundry on a line, something she can do.

“I do!”

“What else?”

She wants to help, something to do besides battling the waves and swatting away sitters. Something she can do without spying eyes.

“Dishes.”

“Lots?”

“No, but I’ll cook something, and you’ll have more.”

The great wave is coming.

We can all feel it. It’s fast and it’s slow. Some days we all collapse on the foamy sand, exhausted. Other days, we wade into the waters with her.

She’s a little less fierce, but she dives into the wave. “I have this thing, this problem with my head,” she explains.

The great wave will swallow her, cartwheels, legs over head, words foaming, splintering, sinking into the sand.

“The FDA approved a new drug this week.”

But it’s too late for Aduhelm. We can’t stop the great wave. It’s coming. It will take her. And bits of us.

Busy and scattered, we do our best to stand with her in the surf, staring across the surface of the mystery.

It’s coming. She knows it’s coming. She’s known a long time and she dives in headfirst every day to remember.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved 2021
Word count: 970
FCA and all comments and feedback welcome

My patio moment

The patio moment didn’t last long. I’m grateful. Those sixty to two hundred seconds were petrifying.

Petrification

Part of me wants to tuck this darkness down, hide it from worried eyes, prying minds. When I told Steven about it last night, I finished with, “Don’t tell anyone.”

This moment right here, the telling someone, must be a cousin to the moment an addict experiences, speaking that dark truth, exposing the disease. The telling is also petrifying.

Scientists blame calcification.

Emotionally, it’s hard, a petrification.

Patios

I have many soft emotions around patios, my patio, where I’ve created a sacred space for writing morning pages, meditating, reading; my friend’s patio, where we’ve made space for our laughter, joy, dreams, tears, and anger.

My friend’s patio is also her sacred space. Although my patio isn’t as nice or big as hers, she often commented when we would sit on my patio about how much she wished her patio were covered like mine. This year, she installed a roof over her patio so she can enjoy it rain or shine.  I was standing in her yard, admiring it, remembering how she used to express her longing for this roof whenever we sat under my patio cover.

My patio.

My patio?

I closed my eyes, turned away from my friend and Steven, who were untangling solar lights.

My patio! What does my patio look like?

I know it has a roof, a covering.

My patio.

I could not conjure the image of my patio.

I walked away, eyes squeezed tight now, connect the dots connect the dots.

My house.

I couldn’t find it. Not yet.

I just need one small dot and then one more.

I’m not sure I was breathing.

My first dot was the dead DeLorean parked in our driveway.

Dot, dot, dot…

Walking through the front door, the TV room, the dining room.

My patio!

Is this the beginning?

Maybe this was just an empathetic moment, I’m so close to mom’s battle.

But what if it’s the first of many moments, when the dots are harder and harder to connect?

I sat under my friend’s patio, doubling over in the chair.

I looked up the stages of Alzheimer’s. This would be a pre-stage 1. Stage .25?

One of the beautiful gifts mom has given us on her journey is her openness. She didn’t tuck her darkness down, hiding it. As I’ve watched her battle this bull, that openness is one of her weapons against it.

I see you!

Every time she can respond to the bull’s attacks with that recognition, that I see you, she smites it. Just a bit.

Did I get a first glimpse of that bull yesterday, when I couldn’t see my own patio?

I pray it’s an anomaly, a mind crowded with too many to-dos, a little stress, and relational tension.

But what if it’s the first spec of calcification on my hippocampus?

Even as I told Steven don’t tell anyone, I thought of mom. I have this problem. Her sometimes uncomfortable frankness about the disease that has slowly sucked the life out of her.

Since when? When did it start for her?

Fight in the Light

We’ll never know. Maybe she was also in her 60s when it started. The disease showed up for my grandmothers when they were in their 60s.

I hope this is my one and only patio moment, but what if it’s not? Taking the secrets of a disease to the grave serves no one, not even the victim.

There is a shared despair around Alzheimer’s. My dad feels the despair as he watches the beast take mom, one bite at a time. I feel my own despair when I visit them. Over the last four years, I’ve touched the edges of the despair mom must feel, but in that patio moment, I felt it. Her despair as she scrambles for the dots to get back home, as I squeezed my eyes to find my patio.

It’s petrifying to imagine what could be happening under my skull, but calcification doesn’t pause in the darkness. This might simply be a brain fart, the passing of a mental stone, but if this is the beginning of a battle, I’ll stand in the sun and fight it in the light.

May 29, 2021, 5:30 pm. I could not remember my patio.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

We’re not okay. But we’ll be fine. We tuck and roll.

Tuck and roll? I learned it in a gym, as part of exhausting drills and practices.

I’m exhausted again. But it’s different. Different from a long run or an intense workout because I don’t recover all the things. No standing in the mirror to check the shape of my tummy, the tone of my thighs. No bonus endorphin boost.

I’m just tired.

I ask dad to send mom to my house in the gator. She no longer drives cars but still has the skills, so…

Send mom down in the gator. 

A few weeks ago, mom and I started my dam sunflower project: a tunnel of mammoth sunflowers flanked by shorter ones along the top of the pond dam. Today, a sunny, cool morning, we’ll plant the second round of seedlings.

Mom loves to do things with me. I say “with me” but honestly, she loves to have something to do with anyone, to feel like she’s contributing, helping.

I hear the gator, expecting to greet a happy mom, but she climbs out sulky, weary.

What’s wrong, Mom?

I’m just tired.

Oh, you didn’t sleep well?

No, I’m just tired of this, she waves her hands in the air to fill in words that escape her. I’m tired of being alone.

Thud. Reflex hand to chest.

Mom’s not alone, of course, and now that we have sitters, she spends very little time alone.

I’m tired of being alone.

I give her a long hug.

I’m here now.

I push down the heaviness as I load the gator.

You ready to plant some flowers?

She manages a detached smile.

After we load ourselves, I tell her, Hang on!! and gun the gator up the hill.

There it is! The joy in her eyes.

I wonder if revving the gator brings back memories of her gold T-bird with rear doors that open backwards. She loved to taunt dad, gunning the engine as she left tread on her way to…

She holds her hat to her head. Where are we going?

Thelma? Louise?

To the pond. To plant some more sunflowers.

Help.

Dewberries are in season and briar patches cover the pond dam. I give mom a bucket to pick berries while I dig forty holes for seedlings.

A year ago, mom and I could tag team a project like this, digging, adding nutrients, seedlings, soil, water. Now, I talk her through the steps she.taught.me, but she loses her way, tangled in the briar patch of her hippocampus. She can pick berries without reminders, so, Here’s your bucket.

About twenty holes in, I hear “Help.” No exclamation in her voice. Just “Help.”

I don’t see her at first. She rolled down the bank through briars and berries, just short of the pond.

I reach out, but she refuses my hands.

I lost all my…

She waves one hand looking for the word. Berries.

I find her bucket a couple of feet away in the briars and collect her berries. She watches, leaning up the bank, chest and arms resting between bent knees.

When she’s satisfied, she lets me take her hands. She’s slight, but I struggle to pull her up. Visions of both of us tumbling into the pond splash through my mind. I hold tight until we’re safely on the flat top of the ridge.

There, I say turning to pick up the berry bucket.

But she keeps walking backwards, as if still pulled by an incline.

I can’t stop.

Her voice is soft, her arms flail.

I grab one of her hands and put an arm around her waist. Her legs keep stepping back. I walk (push?) her to the gator.

Sit for a spell, Mom. Drink some water.

This isn’t the first time she complained she couldn’t control her legs. Is it part of this disease? This isn’t the first time she rolled down the ridge.

When mom helped me with the first round of sunflower seedlings, she rolled down the west side of the dam, away from the pond. She managed to stand up, but she rolled back down.

Wait! I ran to her, gave her my hand, pulled her up. When I let go, down she went! Again!

I grabbed her hand. This time I didn’t let go until she was standing on the flat middle of the ridge. She laughed.

Well, that’s a story!

Mom trained to fall well most of her life. She still falls well.

Last year she helped dad unload some things from the bed of the truck. Done, she went to climb out, the gate popped open, and mom went flying through the air and onto the concrete driveway.

Tuck and roll. Tuck.and.roll!

Mom trained for this. As a coach, she trained me and hundreds of other teenagers how to fall.

When you play the game, a fall is inevitable.

Tuck and roll!

Dad turned in time to see mom sitting, chest straddled through her knees, on the driveway, a few scrapes, but not a single broken bone.

Today, I pull her through her straddle, up the ridge, out of the berries, but she doesn’t laugh. She sits in the gator, sips her water, rests.

We’re tired.

I want the exhaustion endorphins, dammit. I want mom to receive some too, to take the deep satisfying breath, feel the renewal of her effort course through her blood.

But the endorphins aren’t coming, are they?

Maybe this feeling is premature grief? Or its evil sibling, dread, stealing the one gift this disease offers: live.in.the.present.

Perhaps this is grief’s companion? Helplessness? Like rolling through briars down a ridge?

Tuck and roll, tuck and roll, we’ll save our bones, but none of our tuck and roll training will save us from the fall. We’re falling.

Maybe the feeling is all these and a lot more things.

I’m not sure how much longer we can tuck and roll, how many more bones we can save, what we can hold onto.

We’re tired, lonely exhausted, helpless falling, grieving the berries we dropped, even as we plant flowers together, hold each other on the ridge, and zoom up the hill in a noisy gator with a smile. We’re terrified.

Tuck and roll.

What’s tuck and roll? It’s the grace you add to your fall.

I refuse to let walking backwards be mom’s final effort today. I take her out of the gator. We make one last round to admire the seedlings, place dried grasses around their bases, load our tools, then head home.

We’re not okay. This fall is inevitable, and we won’t recover completely.

But we’ll be fine. On the other side of this, after we tuck and roll, we’ll have berry stains and briars in our bottoms.

But we’ll be fine.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

Mothers, I see you

Happy Mothers Day.

It’s mothers day. If you’re one of those who feels squirmy and uncomfortable because this isn’t your day or because it’s a hard day, keep in mind that this day, like many of our “holidays,” is a devised day, not intended to lift anyone above you or leave you out, certainly not intended to bring you down. We are all worthy of celebration.

As every year, I see those of you standing on the edge of this day.

Maybe you’re:

  • a mom who is estranged from her children
  • not a mom but you mother others
  • not a mom even though you tried
  • not a mom because you never wanted to be

Or maybe your mom is:

  • living with dementia
  • no longer with you
  • estranged
  • difficult or mean, perhaps even a monster

I see you.

Which gets me past the greeting and to the point: I also saw the post “Mothers around the world,” images of mostly “exotic” mothers from around the world with babies, sometimes more than one, strapped to their backs and chests. I saw the mom that labors in a muddy field, carries a basket of wet laundry on her head, or, oh my goodness!, balances bricks on her head as the baby sleeps on her back.

Yes…

  • the photos are stunning and hint at a story.
  • those women are amazing.
  • we should know about these women, mostly women of color, and see their motherhood.

But do we? And by “we” I mean those of us in the US and western European countries. Do we really see the women in these photos?

Do we know their story?

What are we celebrating when we circulate this collection of images for mother’s day? I’m not studied in the socio-economics of motherhood around the world, but something makes me uneasy as I click through these images.

Firstly, if the point is to be cultural, do you know what country all of these women are from? I don’t. I see the Guatemalan skirt, the Bolivian bowler hat, the Indian bindi. But I mostly can only guess at the continents and countries, much less have any inkling of the community or tribe. Not to mention that many of these women don’t even represent the majority of their own country.

What are we trying to convey?

First World and Other

The photos do tell the story of women who work in fields and brick yards, as they nurse babies and provide daycare for their brood. But what are we modeling? Some of these women probably go home to dirt floors and rooms lit by candles and lanterns. They cook meals over an open fire in the corner of a smoke-smudged room inside their home. But even so, they’re not representative of the “norm” of their countries, so what are we saying about these places?

These women deserve to be celebrated, but what are we celebrating with their images on mother’s day?

I’m humbled. Maybe that’s the point. I feel my privilege to the bone. But that’s not what makes me uneasy.

I’m uneasy because I’m an uninformed trespasser looking at a photo. Did she give the photographer consent to snap the photo?  I don’t know, and now the photo of that mother circulates on social media in a culture very foreign to her experience as a way to what? Exalt motherhood?

What do we take from this? Motherhood goals? Or is it a reprimand? “How can you complain about car pool and soccer laundry? You don’t have to carry the basket of wet jerseys and socks four miles from the river to your hut.”

Celebrate all mothers

All of our experiences are valid and unique. I’d also like to celebrate the experiences of these women, but it doesn’t feel like we’re celebrating them.

In this collection of thirty five images of women, thirty three are women of color. The women of color wear their everyday clothing, mostly different from our own, sarongs, woven skirts, brightly dyed fabrics. They walk through fields and along dirt roads with children on their backs and bags on their heads wearing their “real” clothes, some of which are skirts that would tangle between my legs and trip me on my way to a plumbed toilet.

These are indeed “Mothers around the world,” but I’m uneasy because I’m not sure what I’m celebrating. My privilege or their perseverance? My dependence on western comforts or their determination and peace in the lack of them?

Also, these don’t come close to representing all the women.

All the colors

There are two exceptions in this montage, two white women standing in a street, not a field or a work yard.

One does have two children strapped on, a baby on her chest in a tie dyed baby wrap and a toddler strapped to her back in a backpack. The toddler is wearing crocks. The mom has fun rainbow hair. They’re not in a field or on a dirt road, but rather on a street, behind them, tidy apartment buildings on plumbing and electrical grids.

It’s a lovely image, but I’m not surprised to read some indignant remarks and reactions under her photo.

—She doesn’t belong!

—What do you mean? Who are you to judge? The title is Mothers around the WORLD!

The other white mom —a woman with her daughter, both wearing traditional Romanian outfits— also draws social media drama and name calling. But for me, it’s not about whether or not the Romanian mother belongs in a montage titled “Mothers around the world.” With that title, what mom doesn’t belong? But why are more moms not represented? I don’t mean more white moms. I mean moms from those same countries who live in lit houses with toilets. I mean moms from a few miles away who have access to daycare for toddlers.

This collection suggests that the moms of most countries of color live like this when in its simply not true.

I don’t think the objectors to the post are wrong. Unlike most of the images, the two white women have bright eyes and an unlabored easiness, a jolt that the title of the collection cannot assuage. I also think those who are incensed by the objectors aren’t wrong. They are absolutely correct, not because the title is “Mothers around the world,” but rather because who are we to know what labor and tribulations the two white mothers endure?

There are several tears to take if we take into account the thread on the white ease of living versus the “colorful” burdens to endure that this collection suggests.

Which takes me back to this: these photos don’t tell the story.

Who are we?

What does it say about us when we take images that don’t belong to us, that don’t belong to our experiences, that don’t tell the whole story of their subjects, that don’t even represent the experiences of the countries the images represent… what does it say about us when we use these images to say: “This is motherhood!”

I, for one, never pulled crops from a muddy field with my skirts tucked under my waist and a baby on my back. I never trudged up a hill under crippling bags of laundry or firewood while carrying a child. Is that the goal? And if not, if motherhood should never be that hard, what are we doing for these women?

Are there initiatives “around the world” that allow me to help? These women don’t need white saviors, but they may need food, new shoes for themselves and their children, shelter. I’m not sure. I don’t know. But I’ll explore the question I would want to ask each one who carries a load that would collapse me: “What can I do to make raising your family easier?”

Motherhood comes with challenges and blessings. Sometimes just being seen makes the uphill climbs easier and the good parts sweeter. Sometimes being included gives you the strength to get through the day. Some of these images are stunning. But I don’t think the images made the mothers in them feel more seen.

I see you. I see all of you who are mothers, who mother, and who celebrate or grieve mothers, mothering, and motherhood. And I celebrate the light you bring.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

 

 

Eloise

She isn’t safe.

Mom sees her first, noticing her through the bay window, walking on the highway with her dogs. “That’s not safe.”

Cars and trucks barrel over the hill and around our bend of highway. Most slow as they pass her, some stop as her dogs cross.

She’s sporting reddish floral leggings, a yellow sweater, another sweater around her waist, a turquoise necklace, a red purse, and tennis shoes. The metal quad cane extends from her right arm, its four feet steadying her as she leans hard into the handle with each step.

“Would you like some help?”

“Oh, I’m okay.”

Cars approach us from both directions as one of the smaller dogs runs towards us, mid-lane. I step into her path and reach down to pick her up as she approaches. Two larger dogs rest in the ditch, watching us with interest.

“I can help.”

“Thanks.” She lifts her right arm and points with the cane, “I’m going right there.” That’s when I notice the small dog in her left arm, slowly slipping out.

“I can carry that one too if you like.”

“Thanks.” She allows me to take the brown and white puppy. She nods at the brown and white dog in my left arm, “That’s the momma.”

The walk to her driveway is less than 300 feet, but our pace to safety is slow. The momma dog is relaxed, but the puppy wiggles and whines for his owner.

During a pause, she lifts her right arm again, this time to point at the dogs in the ditch. “Those two,” then lifting to point farther up, “Remember when those trailers were there?”

Some of the trailers still are.

“Those two were born in those trailers. Their momma died. They’re all’s that’s left of her dogs.”

The two ditch dogs stay put during our stroll to her driveway. Maybe they understand the danger of the highway.

Her story

My strolling companion becomes immediately familiar, talking in fragments and slivers of personal information.

“I normally don’t come this way,” she explains. In snippets I can’t always follow, she describes how she ended up here today. She’s clearly exhausted. Based on what I know about the area and her description, she’s been walking at least two miles.

“My lights are out, you know.” She’s talking at a steady clip now, looking up at me between phrases. Her words flow like water over a ridge, cascading and splashing, mixing, tumbling. “My husband, after he passed…”

She explains that they lived in Baton Rouge. I start to tell her I’m from there, but it’s not easy to interject.

“That was my big mistake, coming here.”

I hear a big truck approaching, so I pause and shield her while he passes, slowing only slightly.

“I should have stayed in Baton Rouge, but they made me sell my trailer.”

As we approach her driveway, she seems hesitant to continue with me.

“This is far enough.”

“That’s okay. I’ll walk you to the driveway.”

Catching her breath she continues the cascade of life history. “You know…” she points her cane and names one of the neighbors up the road, “He took my car. They told me I can’t drive no more. But I have a driver’s license. I can drive. But they took my car.”

I know some of her kin probably don’t always do right by her, but taking away her car is not something I fault them for. Sure, maybe she can drive, but that doesn’t mean she should.

“This is far enough,” she repeats as we reach the drive.

“I’ll walk you to the gate.” I want to get her all the way off the highway.

“You see my son’s signs?” she asks.

I smile and nod.

DO NOT ENTER / KEEP OUT

Large, threatening hand-sprayed signs. I wouldn’t dream of going beyond them.

“I’ll just walk you to the gate.”

She changes directions, back towards the highway. “Let me check to see if they delivered my mail!”

She hobbles to the box, talking with each step, bends into the box. Empty.

When we come closer to the gate, I hand her the puppy, set the momma dog down, and watch them walk towards the DO NOT ENTER sign leaning just inside the gate. She turns to me, “Thank you.”

As she turns back to the gate, I tell her, “My name is Pennie.”

She smiles, “I’m Eloise.”

I watch Eloise skirt the giant puddle in front of the gate and walk into the property. As I walk home, I see mom on the my front porch, wringing her hands.

We all deserve a safe place.

I know a little about the families across the street, but mostly second-hand and so it’s not mine to tell stories about them.

  • What I know first-hand after today is the tenderness of Eloise. The puppy begged to get back to her the whole time I held him. The momma dog and two bigger dogs followed her devotedly.
  • What I know first-hand after my walk with her is the resilience of Eloise. She walked at least two miles on the rural roads and a highway and she probably lives without electricity.
  • What I know first-hand after talking to Eloise is her mind is slipping.

Mom isn’t walking down the highway with a red purse and four dogs, but she’s falling apart too. I think her heart leapt from the sofa when she saw Eloise shuffling along the highway with a cane and four dogs because she knows what it is to be lost.

Eloise looks healthy enough, her puppies are well-fed, and she’s not driving, so someone’s doing something right for her. My prayer for Eloise is that she is and feels safe at home.

I share with mom some of the things that Eloise told me. When I explain that I offered to walk her to the gate, mom says, “You can’t go in there!”

“I know mom,” and we walk into the safety of my home.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

Your Shoes

I cannot truly stand in your shoes.
I can stand at your side
to face the rise and fall of the sun,
stand firm with you as the shadows drift,
hold space for you as you ground in your light.
I cannot know what it is to stand in your shoes,
but I can stand with you.

I cannot imagine what it is to be in your shoes.
I can listen to the crunch
of the twigs and pebbles beneath your soles,
the stories of the paths you’ve walked,
the creak of the leather as it bends with the bones of your feet.
I can never know being in those shoes,
but I can listen to you.

I cannot know what it is to walk in your shoes.
I can teeter behind you
along the fallen trunk to cross the chasm,
through the bramble that litters your path,
stepping high over the patches of briars and berries.
I will never walk in your shoes,
but I can walk with you.

I cannot know your feet in those shoes.
But I can sit with you,
our weary feet beneath the table,
where we share stories of callouses and recovery,
blisters born of rough edges, tender arches protected by thick soles.
I cannot know your shoes,
but, in this stillness, I can hear your heart.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved.  2021

A year in the life of morning pages

A year in the life of morning pages

Today marks my 365th morning-pages morning. I took Julia Cameron’s (The Artist’s Way) directive to heart: Three pages every day, first thing in the morning.

In three hundred and sixty five days, I filled seven notebooks and I’m more than halfway through my eighth. Most of the notebooks were rescued from the piles of barely used notebooks my children left in the empty nest; others are new. They’re all used now, pages full of monkey droppings from my head, conversations with myself, conversations with my characters, to do lists, to done lists, plans for the weekend, some self-flagellation but mostly ánimo, encouragement and finding the courage.

So you filled a stack of notebooks. So what?

Well, here’s what. The practices that Julia Cameron promotes in The Artist’s Way are part of a process, steps on the road to authenticity, invitations to show up for yourself. Does it make a difference? I’ll let you be the judge.

What I did with 365 days of morning pages:

  • I played…
    • digging and building the pond in my back yard.
    • making collages featuring my dream life.
    • painting canvasses with messages to my inner child.
    • making lemongrass baskets.
    • painting rocks.
    • taking a few artist dates (still not showing up as fully as I should for this but getting there).
    • buying a lot of Colorful Pens!
  • I made mornings a ritual…
  • I looked back…
    • digging through old pages of poems, stories, novel notes, and first chapters.
    • searching photos of my younger self.
    • reconnecting with my younger self.
  • I committed to writing…
    • every day.
    • really writing for myself, not just morning pages.
    • with a contract to myself I keep in my wallet.
    • joining online writing groups and pages.
  • I showed…
    • some days tired.
    • sometimes staring at the page.
    • mostly writing.
  • I showed up harder…
    • flipping my schedule to write in the morning, beginning work at noon.
    • setting daily and weekly goals.
    • eager to greet the page.

Blah blah blah. So what?

I’m not done. Here are some nouns to chew on.

What I hold on the other side of 365 days of morning pages:

  • My women’s fiction/ sci-fi novelFlower in light
  • 74K words of my second novel in the trilogy
  • A writer’s retreat
  • Four weekly creative check ins with four other creatives
  • Two Twitter story threads
  • My book proposal
  • My author marketing plan
  • A dozen plus queries
  • Pitches in #pitmads
  • Etsy shop
  • My #spreadlight postcards

Still not impressed?

Doesn’t matter to me because I didn’t show up to the page for you. I showed up for myself. My list of “accomplishments” won’t impress all of you because some creatives do this and more before they turn 30, and I’m more than double that age.

Here’s the thing: these are the things of my dreams that seemed to hover in an impossibly distant future. Taking that time for myself to sit with a notebook and fill three pages, for about an hour every single morning made the change I needed. That practice bridged the gap between the life I live and the life of my dreams.

I filled almost eight notebooks in one year. If I live another 10 years, that’ll be another 80 or so notebooks. Maybe I’ll fill some 200 over the next 25 years. Maybe 300. I don’t know how much longer I have to fill notebooks, write novels and screenplays, and play. That notion —I’m running out of time!— haunts many of us at my age. I’m making peace with time, because every morning, I show up for myself to begin that new day in the best way I know how so that I can show up for the time I have left.

Did writing three pages a day, with colorful pens in used and new notebooks change me? You can judge for yourself, but my answer is yes!

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

 

Losing is hard

I  want to be a hero, but today isn’t the day. Today is the day I bend into the sob and ask myself, “What is this?”

It’s a rhetorical question. I know what “this” is. But I double over anyway.

Losing is hard.

I spend two weeks at the suburban (capital city) home with my honey, then two at the water hollow (farm) home close to my parents. The first two days at the water hollow are the hardest.

She’s still swimming to the surface, bubbling “I can’t remember the words” because she’s a fighter. Even as we’re giving up, she hasn’t. She can’t hide what she’s lost. My throat catches as I fill in the blanks for her with the words that disappeared since… two weeks ago.

This sucks.

Sometimes I power through the two weeks without a wail. Not this time.

I would bargain, but with whom? For what? There are no more drugs. No heroes in the corner waiting to come forward with a measure of relief, certainly not a cure. Certainly not at her age.

At the end of a sitter’s day, I fetch mom. We walk from their house down to mine. I hold her hand because this incredible athlete’s steps are unsteady. Sometimes I hold her back as her gate careens her forward or off to one side.

I can’t… She flails her free hand for the word… they just go. I fill in the they blank —”legs”—, hold her hand tight, focusing on the sweetness of holding hands instead of the bitterness of an athlete’s loss.

Stop!

Mom’s a fierce athlete. She didn’t always win but she never lost without a fight. I wish her grandchildren knew the tales of her prowess. I can’t pretend to know all the stories, but I witnessed a few, like these.

  • Mom played on a basketball team when we lived in Spain. The year after they took the national championship, the league established a rule: no Americans. I think it was a more general “no foreigners” rule, but she was the reason for the rule.
  • Mom returned to college in her 30s after we moved back to the US. She played on all the teams. It was her senior year, basketball season. She was the older woman in a league of 20-somethings. Mom stole the ball. She was wickedly good at dribbling the ball right out of your hand. This woman from the opposing team wasn’t having it. She grabbed mom by the arm and thrust her down. Mom was out for the rest of her senior year, arm in a cast. I remember doctor visits and bone spurs. But she was steel, cheering her team from the bench at every game she couldn’t play.

Can’t we stop? Stop this careening, this fall? Where are the referees to call this rough game? It’s unfair to grab a mom by the arm and snap her like that.

Mom still shows up, even if she’s benched. She fights hard because she doesn’t like to lose. She wags her tongue, “I don’t know what I’m saying,” as she fights for the words, as we fill in the blanks.

I listen to and read stories about other Alzheimer’s victims. They have common threads, but the patterns are singular. Mom’s story is uniquely hers.

I wondered, Why is she still telling us “I can’t find the word”? but I get it now. This is how she loses: not without a fight. Even if she can’t win all the points, she’s holding this damned disease back with every muscle she can until they call the game.

It’s hard for all of us.

Some days, after my heart drops to the floor, and I collapse into a groan of sadness, I kick my heart to the corner. What’s wrong with you!?

Sure, it’s shocking to come back every two weeks to mentally assess what’s gone, but Dad is witness to every drop that spills, every piece that falls away, waking next to her in the bedroom, watching her struggle to dress in the bathroom, helping her prepare dinner in the kitchen because she no longer can. He watches this show live. He sees step-by-step the dismantling of her beautiful energy.

I pick my heart up from the corner, coddle it a bit. This is stressful, but we’ll get through it.

Losing is hard.

I’m not the first to ask myself, Would it be harder if I lost her all at once? Boom! Heart attack. Snake bite. Car accident.

But who am I to compare?

Losing is hard no matter what.

Sudden is tangled in regrets and things unsaid. Gradual is woven with threads of impatience and anger.

And how can we compare experiences?

Losing is hard whether you’re the one who slept next to her for sixty plus years or whether you’re the one who looked up to her for nearly as many.

I kicked my heart to the corner today because I’m not always easy with this. I fall short of heroic, but I can hold space for forgiveness.

Forgiveness for myself, as I breathe through the grieving sob that numbs my thighs.

And for my dad? For my dad, space as he rises and collapses day-after-day next to this disease, empathy when he kicks his own heart to the corner, grace when he needs time to recover energy for the next steps.

She’s not going down without a fight.

We’ll come to a day when all of her words are blocked by the gravel in her throat and the fog in her mind. Maybe I’ll need a moment to curl into my thighs and sob, maybe I’ll take it. But on that day, I want to be her hero. I want to show up like she did in her cast for her teammates. I want to sit next to her on the patio, hold her hand in the long stretch of silence between the lawn chairs, even if we can’t both be in the game. I’ll cheer her on. I’ll point at the bats for her as they fly into the dusk.

Losing is hard.

Losing is a lot to live through. But who she was and what she will always be in my heart are more.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021