Monday, October 13, 2014


I’d never much liked them anyway, even before they said the words.

It would be a lot better if the blacks weren’t there.  I don’t know why they have to come and mess up everything.

They spoke in a rapid-fire tandem, this pair, peppering our high school conversations with generic diatribes about the blacks, every bit of it delivered in a shrill off-kilter harmony, bad angels in a racist choir.  Even living where we lived, an aggressively conservative town where I’d long before gotten used to the attempts to save my doomed and dirtied soul Young lady, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior? delivered by what in my memory is always a nameless series of pale faces, turtlenecks and cheap neck ties and too white smiling teeth, the college kids brand new to town and ready to notch a fresh mark on their heavenly bedpost, even there, our small and loudly conservative home, their racist language stood out.  

It’s not fair that the black girls keep winning homecoming queen.  I mean, they’re not even pretty or anything.  It’s only because there’s so many of them.

I’d sit at the pocked lunch table with my French fries and paper carton of orange drink, the back of my head itchy from their words.  Freshly creased copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X stuffed in my Jansport, I felt militant and smart.  I wasn’t though.  George Bush’s dad was still president and I was just another white girl who didn’t have the language to challenge two racist girls I’d known since we were all babies. That nobody else sat with us at our nicely integrated school should have clued me in but I didn’t think about it.  None of my good friends shared that lunch period so I sat with these two out of habit, the idea of “friends” still very much based on tradition, those teenage years before you learn you can actually choose. 

For a few months that year I did challenge them.  I’ve never been one to be too quiet, but they never waivered.  I’d always assumed that people were mostly thoughtful.  That if you presented them with data that suggested their idea of thinking might need to be revised and reconsidered that they would adjust accordingly, that the default is decency.  I was wrong.  I learned over lunch when I was sixteen years old that there is a vein of ugliness that runs through some people, like a burl through a piece of maple, a twisted lump in an otherwise perfect log.  I hung in there for a couple of months until I couldn’t take it any more.  Then I retreated to the library where I sat alone with the sandwich and chips that my mom packed me, every day pulling the same copy of Jaws from the shelf behind my favorite table, slowly working my way through it as the school year progressed, the sharks there at least predictable and known and utterly helpless to their own vicious natures.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What Would Your Mother Say?

Put your shoes on.

They were already on but I didn’t say anything.  Just looked down at my feet in their brown Darth Vader stride rites in a motion of compliance.  She wasn’t looking so she didn’t notice, her giant straw purse was already on her arm, the other one shouldering open the battered screen door to hold it for me as I shuffled through.  She reached back to grab the knob, pull it shut, and double check it, one, two, three times just to be sure, her keys jangling in her other hand all the while.   

Put your shoes on.

My children pour themselves into the kitchen in the vein of mice after lights out, smoothly and from all directions as they head for the stack of shoes, shoving each other out of the way to find their own in the tangle of flip flops and small pink boots and light ups with police cars on them.  I stand at the door, impatient, blindly calling out orders and untrue threats.  “Guys, seriously, I am not even joking.  I am getting in the car and leaving and I don’t care if you’re in it or not.” I scroll through my phone distractedly, check the time on my watch, glance at the trashcan to make sure there’s nothing for the dog to grab while we’re gone.  I’m not sure why but they take me seriously, scrambling over each other pushing, blaming then falling out the door that I pull closed behind us. 

I love you, sweetie.  You have a really good day.

I kiss the tops of heads in the order I have come to know them:
“You have play practice this evening and your phone, right?”
“Make sure you don’t leave your jacket outside today, okay?  And don’t worry about your spelling test.”
“Mommy will see you at lunch.  Have fun with your friends this morning.”
They nod and they wave and they run off into their days, quick hugs and then quiet.

I stand in the doorway with my thumb in my mouth and she smooths down my hair.  Yellow cinderblock walls with crayon pictures of houses and trees, cutouts of jungle animals, she turns to leave.  When I can no longer see her on the sidewalk outside the door I run to the window and watch as she gives one last look back and blows a quick kiss in the direction of the window.  She can’t really see me but assumes that I’m there, does it just in case.  She climbs into the brown Datsun, backs out into the parking lot, drives off into the cold morning to work.  I suck on my thumb and I wait.  At some point I know I go off to play with friends, with toys, but in my remembering I am always at the window. I love you, sweetie.  You have a really good day.

This story is part of Yeah Write's weekly story challenge using the writing prompt "What would your mother say?"  Thanks for reading!  To read more stories in the challenge, please click here.  On Thursday, vote for your favorites!

Monday, September 29, 2014

What Rape Culture Looks Like

Anyone who hasn't had the chance to read Coy Barefoot's disturbing timeline of L.J. Matthew's movements the night he is suspected of abducting Hannah Graham should take a moment to do so. It is chilling, but it is also important because it underlines how our sleepy acceptance of the behavior of predator men allows crimes like this to happen.  It is what every Friday night in a college town looks like, what every Friday night in any town looks like.  It is rape culture and it is our fault.  

Rape culture is nitpicking what Hannah was wearing and doing that night but shrugging off a lifetime of groping and grabbing freely at women who don't want it. 

It's statements from that article like this: "A friend of LJ’s for over nine years described him as a “prowler,” clarifying his use of the word by adding, "which is not to say he was looking for a victim, but looking for a girl who’s already compromised a little bit, maybe improve his chances.”" 

THIS IS WHAT RAPE CULTURE LOOKS LIKE. Men thinking a drunk woman "improves their chances" (it feels gross to even type that.) and their friends shrugging their shoulders and going along.  

It is women so accustomed to being objectified and touched by strangers in a bar and the men with them so used to seeing it/accepting it that instead of knocking the guy out, or telling him to check himself, they just move to another bar to get away from him. Women who know that, when it comes to this deeply offensive transgression, nobody would take their complaints seriously anyway.

Men knowing they can get away with putting their arm around a woman they don't know and people just filing that away under "well that's just one of his moves." 

Women being a prize to be won in a game called Friday night. 


And we accept this. As a society we accept all of this and we don't bat an eye when we could collectively say STOP. Just boys being boys, oh that guy's a creeper watch out for him he's really handsy haha, and nothing more until a woman turns up missing, probably dead. 

This is the next logical step when we allow women to be commodified, when we treat their bodies as public property to be commented on/judged, when we let that creeper in the bar get away with it all night long. He harassed at least two women that night, touching them, being continually inappropriate and nobody said a thing. They got away from him because they were older, had years of practice pushing away men who invade their space but the next one he found was not so lucky. She didn't have those years of practice to know she was in trouble. She was alone and she was definitely compromised. 

This is what rape culture looks like:  taking away from women the agency they need to protect themselves and then blaming them for their own victimization.  And we are all responsible for allowing it to happen and we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Reason for Rocking Chairs

We sat on the splintered porch, my grandfather’s porch first now it was mine.  My new baby girl slept like a hot stone on my chest, her tiny fingers wrapped tight around the chain I wore at my neck, like a mountain climber with a lifeline, hanging on just in case.  I was gray with exhaustion, my brain soft, the colors of spring too bright after so many broken nights.  New motherhood, like old motherhood, works every shift. 

My mother sat quiet beside me, pleasant and easy in each other’s company, and we rocked.  She had grown up in this house, this house of her father and mother, her mother most beloved, long-worshipped who had died when my mother was my age, when I was just a baby.  I did not remember when she was alive, had always lived with the hole of her. 

It was my house now, which made everything “meaningful”, but life is generally “meaningful” so we avoided pointing it out, saying the thing out loud.  Instead we chose silence and the gentle movement of our chairs.  A creak in the half-broken maple, a bird noisily taking wing through the branches, a car grinding gears down the busy street.  My mother smiled to herself and watched me, rocking my baby, my girl with my grandmother’s name and she sent her words out on the wind, “I was sitting right there when mama told me she had cancer.” 

There are strings wound round you heart and your body moves when they are plucked.  I said nothing in return.  We gathered our daughters to ourselves and we rocked.    


Tuesday, August 27, 2013


I keep my gym locker lock in my bright pink gym bag.  I love my bright pink gym bag for lots of reasons, one of those reasons being that some people don’t think I would love something bright and pink.  Those people would be wrong though because I love it a whole lot.  Things just felt wrong when I took the lock out of its little zippered pouch on the side, like something had shifted.  It always takes a tiny leap of faith to lock a lock then depend on memory alone to make it open again.  I always test it first in my hands before I put it on the locker that holds my clothes and my phone and my car keys.  I don’t trust myself not to end up in my bathing suit dripping on the carpet while I stare at it and can’t get it open.  Which is good because this time I couldn’t get it open. 

I’ve had this particular lock for years and sometimes use it several times a week.  As I clicked it home to lock it I was instantly aware I had no recollection of the numbers it would take to open it again.  I have opened this lock hundreds of times but in that moment it could have been any lock pulled from a random bucket of locks, every number seeming as likely to begin with as any other number.  I stared at it and nothing came to me, like it was some other person’s lock in my hand.  I started turning it hoping that muscle memory would take over but it didn’t.  I sat down so my brain could focus entirely on that and not have to worry about keeping my body in a standing position.  All hands on deck, like turning down the car radio when you’re searching for the right house number. 

I did this over and over disturbed by how numbers can just stop existing for you.  (Did I have a stroke in my sleep?  Does 38 mean I’m that kind of old?  What else could I have forgotten?  Did I leave a kid in the car?  A dog tied up in the yard?  Is the car still running in the parking lot?)  I looked up and there was an old woman staring at me.  She was small and all white, her hair and her skin and the buttoned up blouse under her sweat suit.  I hadn’t been swearing or mumbling so she must have just noticed I’d been sitting there staring at a lock past the point where things are still normal.  

“Dear are you having some troubles or a problem?”  she asked.  I was unreasonably touched by her question.  I guess my incompetence and frustration had made me vulnerable.  “Yes.”  I said.  “I can’t get my lock to open.  I’ve had it for years and today I just can’t remember the combination.  Isn’t it crazy you can forget something like that?”  I said this realizing this probably happens to her a lot.  She looked very old.  “Oh no, no, no.  I forget things all the time.  I’m 80, you know and it just happens.”  She walked closer.  “You know what you need to do is just be still about it.  Just let your mind wander and do something else and be quiet and still and then it will come to you again.”  I nodded my head to show her I understood.    

She went on “Do you pray?”  I looked up at her and just smiled very small and to myself and answered “No.  I don’t pray.”  I shrugged my shoulders in surrender.  “Maybe I should start though.”  She continued, head down, conviction behind her words.  “Whenever I need help like that I pray and it always works.  I’m just still and quiet, and that’s really what prayer is, and Christ will answer you eventually.  Sometimes it takes awhile.  Not all miracles happen right away.  Sometimes the miracle takes a little bit to happen.” 

I thanked her for the advice and thought about the prospect.  I like the stillness and quiet part.  I believe in no god so I had no intention of praying, and besides, if there was a god I’d feel like a jerk to bother him/her about my gym locker combination.  That just seems like another kind of selfish.  But her comments were kind and she wasn’t pushy and you can’t really argue with the idea of letting your mind be quiet and still as a way to solve your problems.  What do I care if a person calls that prayer?  I told her I was going to go swim some laps.  That maybe my mind would be quiet then and I’d remember .  She agreed that was a good idea and disappeared back into the locker room with all of the other old ladies who go to the Y at 9am on Tuesdays.

The pool was cold and I lingered way too long climbing down the ladder.  My foot hurt because I had recently bashed it, which is the whole reason I was swimming instead of running like I preferred.  I grabbed a kickboard and started kicking, slowly testing out my foot to see if it hurt as much to swim as it did to walk.  I went back and forth and back and forth, never fast, thinking about my foot and about how it still hurt and how I should go to the doctor for an x-ray even though they wouldn’t do anything about something like a broken toe.  I wasn’t after a solution for it anyway, as I knew none existed.  I most wanted independent verification of my injury.  A reason written down on paper for why my foot was purple and for why I wasn’t logging any miles and for why I kept complaining.  A permission slip. 

I stared down the lane at the reflection of the block against the water.   It made a black line that wiggled in the wakes of the swimmers in the other lanes, all of whom were going much faster and smoother than me.  I kept my head down and kicked and ran numbers through my head.  Three numbers, all of which were either in the 20s or 30s.  That much I was convinced of.  A still and quiet mind.  “Prayer.” 

My ancient dog had to be carried down the steps to the basement this morning because she pooped all over the house last night.  She’d seemed okay when I left her, asleep on her bed, but I knew she didn’t like being down there.  I needed to buy more carpet cleaner and something for dinner on the way home.  The vet is coming tomorrow for the puppy anyway.  If she’s still messed up we’ll have her take a look at the old dog too. Though, like a broken toe, there’s nothing that can be done. 

I know the number ends in 36 because I have a tiny sticker on the back of my Y ID card that has the combination on it.  I put it there years ago.  It’s mostly worn off though and I can only make out that one 36.  Still, that narrows things down.  Something in the 20s should be in the first or second slot.  Maybe both. 

Summer break was really long and the kids finally just went back to school.  I was unreasonably stressed because I find I am not good at managing the hours between the things I have to do and the things I want to do and the things I need to do to keep me sane.  I made a list of things I would work at to keep me happier and more grounded and less stressed and have had moderate results sticking to it.  I went over the list as I made my way back and forth in the water.

- go outside more
- drink more alcohol
- listen to music in the car instead of riding in silence and brooding (my default)
- stop reading the comments section on news articles
- step away from the computer
- watch tv with the kids
- say “no” to grownups as freely as I say it to my children
- don’t put into unpaid work any more than unpaid work puts into me
- don’t let the chumps get me down
- be prouder of the runs I run than I am disappointed in the runs I don’t run
- write more

My legs tired and my foot officially achy I got a leg float and worked on my freestyle pulls.   I’m faster anyway when I don’t kick and I just let my arms drag my body back and forth across the pool.  I’m not very good at swimming. 

Because the last number is 36 I am increasingly convinced that the first two are both in the 20s.  In the past week I have helped my oldest kid with three different combination locks.  Two of them I put in my phone’s notepad for her so if she got stuck at school she could text me and I could help her.  I assume those sets of numbers pushed my own number off my mental bookshelf and onto the floor.  Maybe there’s just a limited amount of room for that sort of thing and I’ve finally reached it. 

Back and forth, back and forth, my arms tiring from the effort.  I’m too cynical now for my own good.  I can’t enjoy things I used to enjoy.  Baseball and television and articles in my favorite magazines.  Even books seem predictable; their back cover synopses a parody of back cover synopses:  “A woman goes on a remarkable journey and unexpected things happen and it’s an exploration of life through the ages and the interconnectedness of human experience and the discovery that a life lived small is sometimes the grandest life of all.”   Boring.  I already know how all of them end. 

800 meters is all I can manage.  Most of those I did with one leg or were just arm pulls.  Still, I know it’s better than nothing, better than not moving my body at all.  You get tired of saying that though.  Tired of never getting faster or better at any of it.  At this point it’s maintenance only but I do enjoy when I finish a workout.  That much is still true.  I took my bag back to the locker room and sat on the bench with a towel around me.  I pulled out the lock and tried a few more turns, always ending with 36 because I know that’s the one correct number.  It never opened. 

This afternoon I’ll watch tv with the kids and I’ll throw the ball to the puppy in the yard.  I like to watch her run really fast in a figure eight around the boxwoods.  Hopefully the old dog is over whatever was bothering her and we won’t even have to mention it to the vet in the morning.  I think I’ll make soup for dinner because they like that and George can wear his apron and put in the vegetables.  Maybe after all that and a beer my mind will be still enough and quiet enough that I’ll remember what comes before 36.  And if not I’ll just buy another lock and this time write the combination in the notepad on my phone and not bother with leaving things up to memory or God. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Your Mother's Mother

Note:  This is quite literally the very first "story" I ever wrote.  I wrote it years before I ever actually sat down to intentionally write anything and I did it because during the entire time that the events in this story were unfolding I knew something terribly special was taking place and I knew I had to find a way to make sure it was always remembered.  As a writer it is often difficult to go back and look at something that was created in the very beginning, before you'd figured out how to make things work the right way and figured out how to pace and do dialogue and all the other things writers take so seriously.  It's hard not to go in and just wholesale rip the thing to pieces and start from scratch.  That impulse is forever there.  Looking over this with fresh eyes for the first time in a long time I worked hard to resist that urge because sometimes a story stands on its own two legs and, really, it doesn't take a whole lot of "craft" to make it sing.  So here you go.  An imperfect rendering of a perfect story.  But, much like children, something that is loved and treasured no matter the scrapes and bruises and not-so-right bits.  Cheers.  JP


We had been planning this trip for a couple of months.  Me and my mom going to New York to visit our cousin Gregg.  New York with its smell of garbage and cooking meat and the exhaust from passing busses.  I love leaning out over the curb to look uptown at the endless concrete tunnels formed from all those towers standing shoulder to shoulder.  All that horizontal made from all that vertical.  Mom and I try to make it to New York at least once a year, twice if we have the money.  We had planned this as a typical trip to the city to eat and drink and walk the streets.  We never imagined that it would also encompass a trip to an unmarked grave at a cemetery on Long Island. 

My mother’s mother was from New York and had lived in Brooklyn until she met a sailor at a U.S.O. dance during the war, got married and moved south to Virginia.  She had three brothers and one sister.  The sister, Dottie, was our Cousin Gregg’s mother.  Dottie had similarly left New York as a young woman in the forties and had moved first to New Jersey and then to Florida to raise her family.  Their brothers had made escapes earlier, during the war.  New York City on its own is an electric place to visit but even more so for us.  When we walk the streets, especially with Gregg who knows more family history than the rest of us, we are walking the streets that our people walked. We are time-travelers.  Gregg easily points to the brownstones where our aunts and uncles lived, the high rise where my grandmother took dance lessons, the church where the wife of our New York State Supreme Court Justice uncle made a spectacle of herself in a bawdy red dress during the 1920s while he was giving a speech to the congregation because she suspected him of philandering.  Another uncle who was a singer with the Metropolitan Opera died suddenly on that great stage.  My great great great grandfather was the first Metropolitan Chief of Police for New York City.  For people who have never actually lived in Manhattan ourselves, we claim great ownership to its streets and its stories. 

By anyone’s measure my great-grandmother’s story is one of the saddest that city of sad stories has ever witnessed.  Filmed as a grand spectacle and adapted for both stage and screen the greatest stars of the era would have fought for the roles.  Careers would be made for the writers and directors and producers of such a drama.  How can one life’s story be so compelling? Variety would ask its readers as ballots would be sent to members of the Academy.  On Oscar night when the cast and crew would bound their way to the stage in jubilant embrace the world would finally understand what had happened those many years ago.  The world would bare witness to the manifest suffering of one so pious:  my great-grandmother.  Of course, none of that would ever really happen.  Because like most of the grand suffering that exists in the world my great-grandmother’s story would go untold for years and years and years.  Only her children would know and then one day her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Such is the nature of suffering.  It is often a quiet and lonely place. 

The word “great-grandmother” typically connotes a grand remove but in our family where we refer to the dead as much as we do the living it is really a much closer relationship than the word would imply.  It is my mother’s grandmother.  The same relation that my daughter has to my mother.  For my mother, it is her mother’s mother.  Put in those terms you get a better idea of the tightness of the ties that bind us together.  In our family, mother’s rule, and the idea of your mother’s mother is sacrosanct. 

My great-grandmother, Ethel Walling, came from a very moneyed, very Catholic family in New York.  She was in her early thirties and was training to be a nun.  Quiet.  Simple.  Loving.  She had not yet taken her final vows and was working as a nursing sister at St. Luke’s hospital in the late 1910s when she met John Maxwell Richardson.  Considerably older than her, he had already lost a wife and children to the influenza epidemic.  He was from South Carolina and was a scoundrel by anyone’s definition.  He swept her off her feet.  It was a whirlwind courtship.  She left the convent and they started a family.  Displeased with her decision to marry this man her people disowned her.  Without her family’s money and resources she was wholly dependent on him for her existence.  They had five children, three boys and two girls.  And then it all went to hell. 

The children never called John Maxwell Richardson “father” or “daddy.”  They called him Major.  He had been a major in the military and the one picture I have ever seen of him hangs on my mother’s wall.  It is a picture of him in full military uniform around the turn of the 20th century.  He stands with his legs slightly apart and points a pistol into the air.  He is small and compact.  He wears glasses.  He is handsome.  He has a satisfied look on his face.  If all you knew of the man were this picture, it would not be hard to guess that he was an asshole.

In pretty short order, after their children were born, Major abandoned them all.  He would occasionally send money for food or rent but as this was the height of the depression Ethel was forced to return to work as a nurse to try to make whatever money she could to feed and clothe her children.  Left alone for long stretches while she was at work social services was often called.  At the time there was little sympathy for a working woman. Still.  Ethel worked and Ethel fought and Ethel kept her children together.  It was a poor life and a hard life but it was a life filled with brothers and sisters and love.  Absent Major, of course.  The stories of his parental failures are multitude.  An example: once he sent David, the oldest child on an errand.  He was to deliver money to a woman in Harlem.  When David got there he realized the woman was Major’s “wife” and that they had several children of their own.  David had never known this.  One can only guess at what possible reason Major would have to send a child on such an errand.  To have to deliver money to your father’s mistress when your own family was in desperate need of it.  Easy proof that some people are simply mean.    

The winter of 1942 Ethel’s five children were scattered like this:  the oldest boys off in the war, the youngest boy in Georgia with Major and the two girls in Brooklyn with their mother.  The oldest girl, Margie, was my grandmother.  She was fourteen.  The youngest girl, Dottie, was twelve.  My grandmother had been attending St. Anne’s, a Catholic boarding school out of the city.  Dottie had also been attending St. Anne’s.  A perpetual momma’s girl who couldn’t bear to be separated from her devoted mother, Dottie repeatedly ran away and back to Brooklyn.  She was subsequently asked not to return to school.  It was in their Brooklyn apartment during the Christmas holiday of 1942 that Ethel became sick.  She lay in bed, coughing and in obvious pain.  Home for Christmas break, Margie and Dottie nursed their mother for three days until they finally became frightened and called a family friend who was a physician.  Hearing her symptoms he ordered them to call an ambulance right away.  Ethel was taken to the hospital.  The girls stayed alone in the apartment for several days.  On Christmas Eve, 1942, Ethel Walling died of pneumonia.  She was fifty years old. 

Ethel’s brother Franklin remained close with his sister though the rest of the family had long ago disowned her.  He took the children with him.  He didn’t, however, take the family dog, which was left in the apartment for days and subsequently destroyed most everything in it.  Home for what was supposed to be Christmas with their mother, Dottie and Margie instead attended their mother’s funeral.  She was buried on December 28, 1942.  For Dottie and Margie, who were children, the event was a blur of sadness and confusion.  They were taken back to the apartment which had been destroyed by their poor little dog and allowed to gather just a few things as they would now be living with their Uncle Franklin and his wife Catherine.  One of Dottie’s best-loved possessions was a little stuffed dog that her mother had given her as a small child.  She was not allowed to bring it with her.  It was thrown out, cruel Aunt Catherine having stated that proper young ladies don’t play with such things. 

Such was the state of the life they were now to lead.  One of harsh realities and little compassion.  One of isolation from each other and the difficulties of being an outsider in another person’s home.  Hard lessons at any age, doubly hard in the wake of the death of your mother.  Two little girls cast to the wind with nothing left to bind them but their memories of their mother and each other.  In all of the distress and confusion of their mother’s death and its aftermath it was never noted by any of her children where their mother was buried.  All that was known was that it was a bitterly cold day and they had to drive far to get there. 


My grandmother Margie died in 1976 at the age of 47.  She died at an age where her children weren’t quite old enough to grasp what exactly their mother had been through as a young girl.  She never talked about it.  It was a private pain.  All they knew was that every Christmas Eve Margie was sad and would call her sister Dottie on the phone.  The Christmas tree was usually tossed out Christmas day.  My aunt Dottie passed away in 2005 at the age of 74.  Throughout her life it was a firmly expressed wish that she find her mother’s resting place.  Unlike my grandmother, she had lived long enough to share these stories with her children and nieces.  It was Dottie who began the search.

For years she had tried to access the proper records which would point to where Ethel was buried.  They had had no luck with obtaining a death certificate.  Similarly, they were thwarted from learning where her Brooklyn diocese typically buried its parishioners.  A week before our regularly scheduled trip to New York to visit Gregg I got an email from my Mom.  It was a forwarded message from her sister, my Aunt Mary.  This is what it said:

I will send you a copy of Ethel's death certificate that I just got today. She had chronic myocarditis and bronchopneumonia and died in Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. She was buried in St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, NY on Dec. 28, 1942. I don't know how close to NYC or Brooklyn that is. Most of the rest of the information is basic. Just thought you'd like to know. Talk to you later.

And that was it.  That was everything.  Less than a week before we were supposed to go to New York we had the answer to the world.  My aunt Mary had gotten a free two week trial to and that was it.  After 65 years of being lost, Ethel was now found.  I called my mother from the pasta aisle in the Food Lion where I had been picking up supper for my own family and asked if she’d seen the message.  Similarly amazed we realized we now had something else to do on our trip to New York.    

I had never really ridden in a car on my trips to New York, other than taxis, which have their own death-defying/life-affirming charm.  It was something different entirely when Mom and I met Gregg at the parking garage on west 42nd street.  The place was enormous and how people actually maneuvered their cars into the spaces was a mystery to me.  My mom got into the front seat, next to Gregg, and I squished into the back.  I knew that for the cost of a parking space like this in mid-town Manhattan you could get a really nice three bedroom house with a fenced in backyard at home.  New York City.  The size and ridiculousness of all of it never stops taking my breath away.  All of us inside after multiple yoga-like contortions and inhalations of breath we buckled up and Gregg plugged in his iPod.  A fantastic mix of Billie Holiday, Maroon5 and Tears for Fears.  Our destination: a cemetery in Long Island.  We made our way out of the parking garage and onto 42nd street.  The traffic was hideous.  Cars and trucks and vans scraped by perilously close and at race track speeds.  Horns honked, brakes were slammed, tires squealed.  I was terrified.  My knuckles white as they gripped the little handle that hangs over the door.  Gregg had fantastic command of the situation and before long we were on the Long Island Expressway and on our way to Farmingdale New York. 

Farmingdale’s name was easy to understand as St. Charles Cemetery was a vast expanse of flatness that had very obviously been farmland once.  Acres and acres of flat.  I have never been in a cemetery that rivals it in space and scope.  Even being from Virginia where we have our share of epic cemeteries, whole cities named for Civil War battles and the dead that they left behind, all are dwarfed by the scale of St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale New York.  This is the cemetery where members of the three Catholic diocese of Brooklyn New York are buried.  It was obvious there are a lot of Catholics in Brooklyn.  We stopped at the welcome center in the cemetery where Gregg asked a woman about finding a grave.  The woman recognized Gregg and our task from his previous phone call which surprised us.  This was the busiest cemetery any of us had ever been to, a hive of activity and people performing multiple tasks.  They came and went from all directions, at least three funerals we could see taking place at that very moment.  She went to the back room and returned with a little blue index card with some words typed on it.  The corners were tattered and bent.  It appeared very old.  It was the grave registration card for Ethel Walling.  It stated that the owner of the grave was Franklin Walling, her brother.  It had been him who had purchased her plot all those years ago.    She pulled out a little map and circled section 9.  She stated that Ethel was buried in section 9, row L, plot 263.  She wrote down the name of the person buried next to her as a means of finding our way because Ethel’s plot was unmarked.  With little hope in her voice and a sympathetic smile, she wished us luck.

As we left the small Welcome House we braced ourselves for a long afternoon.  As far as the eye could see were tall granite grave markers, shoulder to shoulder, no room between them.  Some were literally touching each other they were so tightly packed in.  I tried taking pictures of the scene so I could convey the scale to people at home and it was impossible.  No picture I took could capture the immensity of it.  The endlessness.  The forever.  Eventually I gave up.  There were at least two-hundred different sections in this cemetery.  We were looking for section 9.  In section 9 there were no stand-up tombstones just flat granite markers.  The one we were looking for didn’t even have that.  No marker.  So we were looking for the flat granite marker next to an empty space.  The empty space being our goal.  Section 9 started with row “A” and continued into the triple letters.  We were looking for row “L.”  Gregg maneuvered the car a little ways into the cemetery.  The roads snaked all around and very quickly I had lost track of where the woman had told us to go.  I was happy I wasn’t the one driving as I really had no clue.  Gregg made a couple of turns without any apparent trouble, and there were were:  Section 9.  He drove along the edge of this section and as a group decided that we should just go ahead and get out and see what we could come up with.  Everything was flatness and cold.  There were a handful of outstanding oak trees scattered about.  No upright stones.  Here all the markers lay on top of the ground.  As Gregg pulled to a stop I got out of the car first.  Mom and Gregg were still adjusting their coats and closing the doors when I walked down the row next to where we had just parked.  I passed a few markers and doing the math in my head realized that I was on row L.  “Huh,” I thought.  I walked down a few more and understood I was in the 260s.  “You’re kidding me…”  I was now speaking to myself, but out loud.  I stopped,  looked at the ground in front of me and looked at the marker beside it.  “I found it.”  I never looked up as I called out to Mom and Gregg who had never advanced past the car.  They stood motionless, still in the act of buttoning up their coats just looking at me.  We had steeled ourselves for a lengthy search. This was to be an all day thing.  They were still putting on their scarves and maneuvering them into the fashionable knots of the proper New Yorker.  But it was true.  We had found it.  We were there.  I had walked right to it, actually, having been pushed, maybe pulled.  Gregg put the car where it needed to be, I got out, walked down one row and only one row, and I stopped right where I needed to stop.  I was in section 9, on row L, at plot 263.  I was standing at the grave of my great-grandmother.  A grave that was unmarked and had not been visited for 65 years.  A grave that had been searched for for decades.  This was the place where 65 years before two young girls stood in devastation wearing their best dresses and wool coats and watched as their mother was lowered into the ground.  This, when they should have been fawning over new Christmas things. 

It was not hard to imagine what it looked like then.  March is still winter on Long Island and everything was brown and dry.  The handful of trees was old enough that they would have been there when that sad funeral had taken place.  It was windswept.  It was lonely.  It was gray.  It was a picture of pain and loneliness that typically can only exist in your head but on that day, in that place, it became a living and breathing thing.  There are few times in life where you can stand in a place and know for absolutely certain that others that you have known have stood there in similar circumstances.  This was one of those times.  I did not know Ethel.  But I knew Dottie.  I knew her and I loved her.  And though I was younger than my own youngest child when my grandmother died, I certainly know her.  I know her through my mother and her sisters and through the looks on their faces when they talk about her.  That love for a mother that only gets larger with time.  My Mom and I and Gregg were all at a funeral.  And we knew it. 

We are an industrious people.  So we got to work.  Around the corner from the cemetery was a Home Depot.  As we drove out of that large and lonely place I sat in the back seat and thought of my grandmother.  I imagined her in the back of a big old car with her little sister Dottie sitting next to her.  What were they thinking?  Were they holdings hands?  How stunned they must have been.  Did they know what was coming next?  Of course, I knew what was coming next and a lot of it was not pleasant. I felt guilty that those little girls drove out of that place not knowing their fate while from the safety of the future I did.  I knew the ending.  It was their story, not mine. 

We drove out of the cemetery to the Home Depot next door.  We set out on the task of making Ethel’s place look beautiful.  When in mourning, even for someone you never really knew, it is always helpful to have a task and our task was flowers and grass seed.  We bought three sets of hyacinth bulbs, a pink, a white and a purple, and a blue hydrangea, my grandmother’s favorite, the official flower of the women of our family.  We bought a small bag of grass seed and a trowel and a small rake.  Back at the cemetery we took turns keeping watch for the cemetery landscaping crew because we felt certain that what we were doing was against a lot of rules.  On our hands and knees we planted the hyacinths in a circle around the hydrangea.  We roughed up the dirt all around and liberally scattered the grass seed.  At the last minute we remembered the real reason we had come.  Gregg went back to his car.  He returned with a sealed 8x10 plastic sheet inside of which were pictures.  They were the pictures of David and George and Danny and Margie and Dottie.  All in black and white and all when they were young and beautiful and alive.  We poked a whole through the corner of the plastic and staked the pictures into the ground.  We returned the children to their mother.  That saintly, long-mourned woman who had rested in anonymity for 65 years.  We had found her, we had planted flowers, we had celebrated her and now we will get a marker with her name on it so we will always know where she is.