“The power of narrative stems from the narrator’s ability to be there and then, as well as here and now.”
— C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power
In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, my father, a man with rabbinic aspirations, was deep in his own pickle, indicted for conspiracy and fraud in the federal summer school lunch program.
Nixon was brought down by Deep Throat, the pseudonym given the informant who passed information to Washington Post journalists about his administration’s involvement in what came to be known as the Watergate Scandal. My father got off somehow.
With him in court for one of his hearings, I suffered his ashen face, then his palpable relief when the case was deferred or dismissed, I’m not now sure which. I also don’t know whether his case made headlines the way rabbinic and priestly scandals do these days, “Five NJ Rabbis Arrested for Fraud and Conspiracy” a recent one.
But something always went out from me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged my elbows into the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes
─Theodore Roethke, “Moss-Gathering”
The memory of one of my favorite floral arrangements still comes to me sometimes, when afternoon sunlight starts to take on that funny gold color signaling the end of summer. I made it in a romantic, September-y mood the week after I met the man I would later marry. Black-eyed Susans spilled from a crackled glass vase, their papery yellow petals arrayed from darkest brown centers (the name being a bit of a misnomer). I didn’t notice the ants crawling over each yellow plane until it was too late. The flowers had already settled, each into its own place. I still think of those stolen blooms as one of the few real arrangements in my floral portfolio.
My first flower shop job was supposed to be what my dad would call a “Joe job,” one last stint that required a name tag before I finished my art degree and became a legitimate painter, whatever that might have meant. I didn’t plan on a floral career, or even consciously care much about flowers at first. I was hired by chance. On a whim I took a class in flower arranging with my mom at Trident Tech, our local community college, and the teacher stopped me a few weeks in to ask if I wanted to work at her shop. Arranging flowers seemed way better than my previous position, assembling sundaes at a kosher ice cream parlor, so I started right away. I intended to quit as soon as my art career took off somehow. This felt less naïve than it probably was at the time. Being an artist ran in my family, and I felt it had always been assumed I would wind up in the arts. My mom is a writer, specializing in lyric essays recently, and my grandmother is a watercolorist at whatever the semi-pro level would be called for watercolorists. The flower stuff would just be a stop along the way for me, until I found my own artistic path.
Maria Finn | Longreads | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,403 words)
There’s an adage that you should never make major life decisions right after Burning Man. Once back in your “default life,” wait three months before moving in with the man you met atop a giant rubber duck art car, quitting your job in tech to become a trapeze artist, or getting a shark tattoo. This is considered enough time for the exhilaration of spontaneous love, boundless possibilities, and radical self-expression to subside.
I didn’t meet Danny at Burning Man, but I fell in love with him there. We were introduced at a mutual friend’s birthday party the previous spring. My older brother had recently committed suicide, but our friend encouraged me to come and try to take my mind off it. I went, still a stunned, open wound of a person.
I vaguely remembered talking with a nice guy, and when someone went to take a group picture, he flung his arm around my shoulders and for just a moment, I was not adrift in sadness and shock.
Danny had told me that he and a couple of friends were going to Burning Man that year for the first time to celebrate their birthdays. I promised to show them around if I went. I had a ticket, but didn’t know if I could do it.
My older brother, Bill, had lit himself on fire in front of the Veteran’s Hospital where he was being treated for a damaged knee sustained when parachuting in Panama during our “War on Drugs.” He was also being treated for alcoholism, and diagnosed with PTSD. For treatment, the VA mailed him 1,000 pills of Vicodin (actually generic Hydrocodone) each month, whether he finished the previous prescription or not. My brother Steve had called the VA and asked them to stop giving Bill the drugs. Already troubled, Bill crashed. Steve, who had once studied to be an actuary, later noted, “Someone in the military probably ran the numbers and figured out it was cheaper to send the drugs so these guys overdose or kill themselves.”
Dillard writes in exquisite detail about the haunting, surreal experience of witnessing the last solar eclipse to have been visible on the mainland of the United States on February 26th, 1979, after driving with her husband five hours inland in Washington State to catch the view from a hill top.
Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
Every time I talk to my mom on the phone, just as I’m getting ready to say goodbye, she slips in an abrupt update about her parents — my grandparents. Sometimes they’re in Switzerland. Sometimes they’re in Loma, Montana. Sometimes they’ve gotten “mixed up with bad people.” Sometimes they’ve completely disappeared or died mysteriously. Sometimes it sounds like a government conspiracy — a murder plot. At first, I didn’t know what to say in return. I’d ask how they died or what they were doing in Switzerland. In more recent conversations, I tried to place her back in reality. I’d say, “Mom, your parents have been dead for forty years.” I’d ask her how old they were and she would say 60, 70, or 75. She’s not sure. She says that all the time: I’m not sure. “How old are you?” I ask, and she laughs and says, “Oh, I think I’m about 25.” Once she said she was 18. She’s actually 88 years old.
For about two years now, my mother has been fighting with Alzheimer’s and the dementia that comes from that disease. She’s had years of struggle with diabetes and epilepsy — but her mental condition was always sharp. A lifelong democrat and the mother of six, Patsy loved sewing, making quilts, reading mystery novels, and watching Seattle Mariners baseball while enjoying a Pepsi (never Coke). I am her youngest son.
In 2015, she fell off a street curb and hit her head. She didn’t tell me about this until a week later. She prefaced the story of this accident by insisting that she was fine and only suffered some scrapes on her face and arm. I asked if she went to the hospital to make sure she didn’t break any bones or have a concussion. She said my brother, Mark, her main caregiver, took her to the emergency room but she left when they wanted to do some tests on her. She has long believed that doctors were just trying to take her money — which she has very little of anyway. I tried to chide her for not staying for the tests, for some kind of care, but she was stubborn and said it wasn’t necessary.
This essay first appeared in Brick, the beloved biannual print journal of nonfiction based in Canada and read throughout the world. Our thanks to Martha Baillie and the staff at Brick for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.
* * *
“I have found her,” announced the email sent to me by a close friend, H, who was working in Paris. The attached photograph showed a person I recognized—an elderly woman standing on a street corner and clutching a notepad. Her abundant white hair was gathered into a loose knot at the back of her head; she had a fine nose, an open face lost in thought, and on her feet flat shoes. Her white dress, more coat than dress, I could picture a shopkeeper wearing half a century ago or a modern lab technician. A large, unadorned purse hung from her wrist. To the right of her, the glass wall of a bus shelter exhibited a map of the immediate neighborhood, the Fifteenth District, portions of which became legible when I enlarged the image by sliding my fingertips over it. Across the street behind the woman the name of a café could now be read: Le Puit. Read more…
My ESL student had his first dream in English the same night I dreamt about Matias. I dream in ex-boyfriends. So the morning I left Ben’s apartment and jumped on my bike, I was already thrown. I headed down Myrtle Avenue, fast, trying to escape my own skin. I wasn’t wearing a helmet.
My courtship with Ben was filled with long bike rides: sunset trips to Red Hook, routes that wrapped around rivers and crossed boroughs. When our bikes were stolen, locked together outside a café in plain daylight, Ben gave me his mom’s sturdy Dutch road cruiser that she didn’t use anymore. It was an upgrade, with a bell and a basket and newly tightened brakes.
I had sobbed into Ben’s arms the night before about my impending breakup. I’d been having an affair with Ben on and off for months. My boyfriend, Matias, lived in Mexico City. We had loosely discussed seeing other people on the heels of a fight that ended with him screaming, “If you feel like I am wasting your time, then you should go out and meet someone who won’t!” Still, we’d never had an explicit talk about actually going through with it.
The New York Times has an essay by Searching for John Hughes author Jason Diamond that’s equal parts memoir and travel writing. Diamond, who’s also an editor at Rolling Stone, takes a drive through Florida from top to bottom, getting to know the state most of his family eventually settled in, but which he has only flirted with for months at a time here and there, mostly when he was much younger. Traveling from one region to the next, he comes to realize that there is no one single Florida. It’s a collection of disparate cultures.
Florida represents so much that’s good, bad and bizarre about the United States, all rolled into one long state. It’s where all of our sins go to be washed away by the ocean: drugs, shady real estate developers, and the Palm Beach County man who, in 2012, ate so many cockroaches and worms in a bug-eating contest (the prize was an ivory-ball python) that he vomited, collapsed and died.
It’s filled with beauty and contradictions. Legend tells us Ponce de León ended up sailing to somewhere near Melbourne Beach in his search for the Fountain of Youth, and grandparents go there to live out their golden years. It’s the setting for movies like “Moonlight,” and fiction by Elmore Leonard and Karen Russell and Laura van den Berg. It’s mysterious and beautiful, spooky and exciting. And yes, it’s weird.
A.N. Devers | Longreads | May 2017| 9 minutes (2,206words)
When the first episode of Twin Peaks aired, I didn’t see it. It was the spring of 1990 and I was in shock. My grandfather and grandmother had just died unexpectedly of different causes less than twenty-four hours apart, on April 1st and 2nd, respectively. I was 12 years old and felt as if I was in a fever dream. Their deaths were ghastly and remarkable and strange and heart wrenching and I felt like for two weeks my body had left the earth, a pre-teen balloon, floating above their home of Ft. Worth, Texas watching streams of mourners as they arrived with potato salad and Ricky’s BBQ and chocolate cake. Read more…
When she was 12 years old, Kate Daloz learned that her grandmother had died not from a household accident, as she had been told by her mother, but from a “criminal abortion,” which is how it was described on her death certificate. Now in her thirties, Daloz wanted to unravel the family secret that had left her mother without her mother. It was a story that could only be told after she found an essential archive of material—and it was also a story that could be told when her mother was ready for her to tell it.
“My Grandmother’s Desperate Choice” was published on the New Yorker‘s website on Mother’s Day, and for the next 48 hours it topped the magazine’s “Most Popular” list until it was unseated by breaking news about the president. I spoke with Kate about the response to the essay, and why it felt urgent to tell her grandmother’s story in the Trump era.
In the beginning of the piece you describe the moment your mother finally revealed to you that your grandmother had died of a self-induced abortion. How did this family secret reveal itself over the years, and when did you know it was time to write about it?
That last question is the easiest to answer: November 8, 2016. Within a week or two of Donald Trump and Mike Pence gaining office—as soon as it became clear that access to safe, legal abortion was in serious jeopardy—I called my mom and asked her if it was time to go public with Win’s story. She said yes immediately.
As I was growing up, Win’s death wasn’t something we talked about often, though it was always somehow present. From the moment my mom first told me the story, it has always felt both personal and political. The facts of her death make the contours of the abortion debate so stark—if my grandmother had just been able to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood she would not have died the way she did, and her children would not have grown up without their mother. It’s really that simple. That’s why, after the election, my mom and I both felt strongly that Win’s story could be a way for others to understand the stakes as urgently as we do.
I realized that I knew almost nothing about Win except the circumstances of her death. Almost all the details that appear in the piece are things I learned only when I began researching—from the letters and documents my mother carefully collected as an adult, along with the others I found on my own.
Within my mom’s immediate family there was near-total silence on this subject. Decades after she died, any mention of Win was still incredibly fraught. My aunt put it really well: My grandfather’s refusal to talk about Win with their children turned her death into the only memorable event of her life. That kind of silence was a common response for someone of his generation, but it was a terrible disservice, both to his children and to Win herself.
What family material was available to you as you wrote the story?
I used letters, photographs, and conversations with older cousins and family friends. At a certain point in my research I realized the taboo that had kept everyone from sharing information with Win’s children might not be as strong for other branches of the family—and in fact I was right. My mother’s cousins knew details of the story I’d never heard, and I was able to fill in major gaps in my understanding.
A few years ago, when I was working on my book about communal life in 1970s Vermont, I noticed that as they age, people are often willing to share more intimate details about their lives and to admit to greater ambiguity and vulnerability than when they were younger. Shame, fear, and all the other things that stop us from feeling free to tell the whole truth can sometimes drop away over time. It’s one reason I think younger generations should always go back and keep asking and re-asking questions—even about subjects older generations might think of as firmly settled.
Was there a key piece of archival information that allowed you to finally tell your grandmother’s story?
Win’s mother, Nyesie, saved every single letter Win wrote from when she went to college until two weeks before she died at 31. Her grandson, my mother’s cousin, transcribed and shared them with me. It was an incredible gift. Poring through those letters was one of the most amazing reading experiences I’ve ever had. Win went from a ghost, known only to me by the horrible way she died, and the hole she left in my mother’s life, to a full person. She was an amazing writer—funny, witty, observant—and her letters are so full of love and affection, first for her mother and later for her husband and children. When I finished reading them, I felt like I’d been hanging out with her for weeks.
The other extraordinary resource I had available were the near-daily letters written by Win’s friend and neighbor, Katrina, to her husband who was in London during the war. Katrina was the person my grandfather called when he came home and found Win dead; afterwards, she also arranged childcare and offered them a place to stay. She recorded all of this, including dialogue, in letters that her husband later brought home with him and which remain carefully preserved, 70 years later. It’s making me wonder if historians of the future will have access to our digital communications in the same way. For their sake, I hope so.
When did you let your mother read a draft of the piece? What were her thoughts?
I was always talking to my mother about the research—in a way it felt like a collaboration. By coincidence, she was visiting my home when I finished the first full draft. Instead of giving it to her to read, she asked me to read it aloud to her. It was intense, but by that point we were both really ready for the story to be in the world. I keep telling her she’s brave but it doesn’t feel that way to her.
You have to remember that the worst parts of this story—that her mother died, horribly and unnecessarily—was, for most of her life, the only thing she knew. The details that the piece uncovered were the commonplace details of a life lost—that Win was a wonderful writer, that her parents had been madly in love, that her mother had written about her as a baby with total joy and affection.
What has the response been to the piece, both from your family and from strangers?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive to a degree I would never have dared expect. For my family, I think they felt a lot like I did. There was a sense of relief at finally speaking openly about a long-held secret and joy at gaining a fuller picture of this woman we’ve all wondered about for so long.
What surprised me is how many people outside the family have also expressed a kind of gratitude for this story being told—in particular, women my mother’s age who still remember illegal abortions.
What do you understand about your grandmother after writing this piece? What do you think you’ll never understand?
I feel like I finally have a sense of her as a real person. I’m older now than she was when she died, which is an interesting perspective; having two children myself also helps me empathize with some of the pressures she might have felt when she found herself pregnant again and unequipped to raise three small children during wartime.
But I have to keep reminding myself that getting to know someone through letters is not the same thing as really getting to know her. Of course I wonder how my mom’s life would have been different if she hadn’t lost her mother so young. I also would love to know how Win would have changed over the course of her life. She seemed to enjoy some parts of being a housewife, and was impatient with others. How would she have responded to the 1950s? Would she have become a feminist in the ’70s? Would she have continued writing in any formal way?
I keep thinking about Win’s last hours. When she died, her children were asleep in the next room. The fact that she didn’t even arrange childcare for them as she attempted to self-abort to me says there’s no way she really comprehended the danger of what she was doing. I’m not sure anyone observing from the outside can truly understand what goes through another person’s mind when they make this kind of decision.
What I do feel like I understand, though, is how personal the choice to end a pregnancy is, and how urgent. I feel like this story has showed me a lot about the lengths to which a person can be driven by desperation.