I’m delighted that my story, “While Our Grown Men Played,” will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Little Patuxent Review. I’m also delighted to be reading at the issue launch event. For more information or to purchase the issue–or subscribe to this lovely regional literary magazine–click on through.
There’s truth in every piece of fiction, of course–despite my penchant for writerly distance. But if there’s one story of mine that tells the tale of my mom and me, it’s this one. In it, I got to call my mom a “world-class whiner,” which she was. But she never whined about what mattered: the breasts that failed her when they let cancer in, twice; the chemo and wig; the daughter living 12 hours away by Greyhound bus. She whined about the little things we could share: overdue library book fines, our pear shapes, cold noses in winter.
“While Our Grown Men Played” is a story about being female, sure; but even more so, it’s about being together, despite distance over roads and time–and cosmos, even. As I write, she’s still with me in the way I am, the things I whine about, and in my body: our ballet bearing, my veiny hands that are hers, the accent that won’t leave me.
Maybe most stories don’t take years and great personal loss to write, but this one did. It is a bittersweet thing to let it go, to read from it in front of others, to somehow tie a bow on grief. But it is sweet, and a testament to perseverance in writing and in living. I hope my mom would agree.
So, today I urge against writerly distance. Let’s try it, together. Let’s close the distances between past and present, between the living and the dead, between fact and fiction–and mine for story that heals.
My mom wasn’t a hippie, though she lived on Hessler Road as a college student–a Cleveland street where hippie power still reigns. Late 60s, with my bearded dad at the wheel of their VW bug, they looked the hippie part, anyway. Enough to be stopped by a police officer, as they traveled country roads to my mom’s parents’ house in upstate New York. The checkpoint was in a little place called Woodstock. The officer tapped on the driver’s-side window. “Going to the music festival?”
“What music festival?”
Alas. My lovely parents weren’t hippies, but they weren’t content to become carbon copies of their parents, either. Starting fresh, newly-married, they moved to the country, where they would raise a few ducks, some chickens, a goat named Esmeralda, and eventually us human kids. What veggies she couldn’t grow in her lush garden, my mom got from the natural food co-op she helped to run. We had a local honey man and a pumpkin man. None of this struck us kids as any kind of resistance against the powers of 80s consumerism powered by…well, power.
For that reason–a kid’s obliviousness to her mom being anything but Mom— her bright yellow No Nukes! t-shirt stands out in sharp relief when I think of her. A child of the 50s, my mom would have recalled the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War. She would have remembered Love Canal, not just as the famous environmental disaster, but as the working class neighborhood 45 minutes from where she grew up.
And so, as I was working recently on a new story set in Ohio in the 80s, my thoughts–and research–turned to that familiar landscape and those looming cooling towers, pictured above, belonging to the local nuclear power plant: the site of my mom’s protest days. Did she carry a sign at the gates of the power plant? Did she chant or yell? I don’t know. She never took us kids. Did she join a small group of Sierra Club members who planted spiderwort flowers–with white petals they said would turn pink if exposed to radiation–at the plant gates? Did they turn pink? There’s so much I never asked her.
Today, my dad’s lake view is marred by the cooling towers of yet another nuclear power plant, less than a couple hours west following the lake shore. And so, in a small way, nuclear power has followed our family. In a much greater and tragic way, it has followed so many other Ohio families, including writer Melissa Ballard’s.
On each visit to a nuclear site, Dad wears a badge. After the visit, he turns the badge over to a technician. The film in the badge, when developed, measures his exposure to radiation. When his cumulative numbers reach a certain level, he has to stay out of the plants for a time.
“Wow, Dad, do you glow in the dark?” I say, teasing.
“No, dear. It’s safe,” he says.
I hope you will read Ballard’s moving essay about a father-daughter relationship–one fraught with struggles of power on several levels. While you’re there, check out some of the best in regional reporting and writing–on offer from Belt Magazine–via my native Cleveland. Thank you to the editor for allowing me to sample Ballard’s essay here.
Is it safe, nuclear power? I’m in no position to debate such things. Such things do color a place, I can say that. Such things do much more than mar the lake view with hulking towers. They change the conversation around power–actual and figurative–that are carried on within families and communities. And we remember and carry the conversations further–those we had, and maybe especially those we should have had with the family members we’ve lost.
We research and write and connect and converse.
What is your impetus to write? What do you wish you would have asked a loved one you’ve lost?
*Image of a nuclear power plant in Perry, Ohio, by Eric Drost.
I’m talking about getting the creative writing out there, into the great wide open–beyond the blog, and into news outlets, magazines, and journals–and so are a lot of other bloggers. So, I thought I might start a convo here, where we can collect some pros, cons, and lessons learned.
Sound good? I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am no expert. I have an MFA in Creative Writing under my belt (along with a lot of Xmas cheese); yet we rarely discussed in short fiction and novel-writing courses what to do with our pieces after we’d written them–past the Sisyphean process of write-edit-trash-revisit-rewrite-edit, that is. Really, a piece of writing may never be “finished,” but eventually, it’s good to let it go. How do you know if your writing might be ready to submit?