Tag Archives: family

Two Fathers: A Portrait from My Youth

He is holding up a clean and empty jelly-glass; bright, colorful cartoon characters chasing merrily around its rim, my long-anticipated reward earned with weeks of peanut-butter sandwiches.

He is hiding behind his dense, secretive mustache, handing me a can of cheap warmish beer, laughing loudly at me tentatively tasting it; spitting it vehemently out.

He is clasping my hand and leading me down the street to the local bar; propping me up on a barstool so all his friends can see, can joke with me and about me while I twirl about on the red vinyl, tall and proud to be out with Daddy.

He is standing at the wire fence, watching me playing in the dirt of our yard, asking, “Is your mother home?” Perhaps not realizing that I don’t recognize him anymore; will have to ask Mom later who that man was, the mysterious stranger who visited her that afternoon and called me by name. Perhaps not knowing that all of my memories of him have already been boiled down to these simple four.

And then he is gone.

***

He sits by himself in the green-painted barn, back of their house, listening to the Italian radio station, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper, its foreign words and syllables impenetrable runes, like his shadowy face in the dark and tobacco-filled haze.

He defies approach, inspires timidity; despises interruption and declines conversation. They shake to address him; quiver in apprehension, dare only when driven by direst need.

“Bubba? Bubba, can I have five dollars?” the youngest son inquires, cowering, backing slowly away even as he speaks.

Harsh mumbling ensues; the status of the request indeterminable to those waiting anxiously outside.

“To go to the movies? Please, Bubba?”

The mumble metamorphoses into a shout; sends the child scurrying away from the barn, out underneath the clutching, hanging vines of the wine-grape trellis, back into the house where his mother waits, her lips pursed, her head shaking sadly.

“Mangia,” she commands kindly, pointing to the table laid with salad and bread and pasta while she fixes a plate for her husband, who will eat, by himself, in the green-painted barn at the back of their house.

***

Originally published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, April 2013.
© Lori Schafer 2013

“Two Fathers” is one of the pieces featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $2.99 Kindle, $6.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

***

I originally wrote this story in an effort to create an ultra-short of one hundred and fifty words or less for a contest. I don’t recall what prompted it, but somehow I got to thinking of my biological father and the very few memories I have of him, which, interestingly enough, taken all together, came out to about a hundred and fifty words!

The second segment is about the father of the best friend I had from the time I was four or five until I was about twelve. In the hundreds of times I visited my friend’s house – which, except for the year we spent living in Connecticut, was just across the street from ours – I don’t believe I actually saw the man more than a dozen times, and never once in all those years did he speak to me. Of course, most of the time he was busy working to support their five children, and there was no doubt that he loved his family very much. But as a kid I was only cognizant of the fear.

I also wrote a third segment of this piece about my “main” stepfather – that’s the one I had the longest – but I didn’t really care for the way it turned out so I omitted it. I’m still not sure if I should have included it after all. It certainly would have put a different spin on the piece as a whole, because it was a fairly flattering portrayal of a man who, without being anyone’s biological father, was nonetheless the best father I ever had. Except that in the end, when the marriage dissolves, the stepdad moves away and is never heard from again, and my intent was to make the story evocative rather than melancholy. And at bottom, I think it makes for a better “vignette” without coming to such a resounding conclusion, and that’s what Vine Leaves does best.

Father and Daughter

I am Subject: On Writing My Memoir

I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project http://www.iamsubject.com/the-iamsubject-project/. Here is my #iamsubject story.

ON WRITING MY MEMOIR

I forgot her.

I hadn’t intended it. I didn’t mean to forget, or to set her aside. I didn’t plan to consign her to the fog of some distant past, or to the blur of some hazy future. I had no plans for her at all. I didn’t even realize that she was missing. I did not know that she had been forgotten.

About a year ago, this young woman I had banished from my memory returned without warning. I know what prompted it. I found my mother’s obituary online. She had died, without my knowing it, six years before.

My mother was gone. Her insanity and the cruelty to which it drove her would lie forever buried, vanquished by the final failure of her physical being; she would never return. But that young woman would.

She came to me first in the guise of a story. Not a memory, but a story, a short piece of fiction that bore a striking resemblance to a vague recollection I had of her life. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t real. How could it have been?

A short time later, she came again, with another story to tell. To quiet her, once more I put her in fiction. But I didn’t examine her character closely. She couldn’t bear examination, and neither could I. Still, she kept coming. She appeared before me month after month, in story after story, until suddenly I realized that the stories were no longer fiction. They had diverged unexpectedly into other forms, into nonfiction and narratives, essays and vignettes. Short bursts of truth expunged onto paper.

They meant little at first. A memory here, an incident there. Never very personal, and never very real, at least not to me. Events that had indeed transpired, but in another woman’s life. Not in hers, and certainly not in mine.

I continued to write them down nonetheless. They were compelling, these bits and pieces of someone else’s past. Some of them sad. Some of them frightening. But after a time it hurt, telling her stories. It was no longer merely an exercise; I began to feel it, someplace inside. Someplace I had forgotten I still kept inside.

They were horrible stories. A mother’s psychosis. A daughter’s terror. Stories of pain and isolation, of threats and violence. Stories of a woman who needed help and never knew it; stories of a girl who cried for help and never received it. Stories of hunger and homelessness, of the ever-present fear of capture and the deathly slow torture of starvation. Stories of a runaway shivering through cold autumn nights filled with loneliness and desolation. It pained me to tell them so I stopped. I had forgotten that girl and her stories two decades before. What sense was there in bringing them back now?

I put them away. But I could not put her away. She would not go quietly, as she had twenty years before, when, more than anything, I had needed to leave her behind. This time she stayed; this time she waited. Until I was ready to tell the rest of her story.

It happened unexpectedly one spring afternoon, just a few weeks ago, when the sun was shining brightly and a stiff breeze was blowing across the rooftop where I like to do my writing. The last six thousand words, the ones I had been holding back, the ones that told the rest of her story. Not of what had happened to her. That I had told already, the factual version, a clinical history of severe mental illness. No, these words finally revealed how I felt about it, of what it meant to me, deep down in places I don’t care to explore. How sorry I am for her pain. How deeply I feel for her, that young woman whose life took such dreadful and devastating turns. How deeply I feel for me, for having to remember. For how much it hurts me to remember.

I found myself weeping as I typed, weeping over a long-distant past, the words blurring before my eyes as, for the first time in twenty-some years, she came sharply into focus, that girl that used to be me. How hard it is to hurt for someone else. How much harder still, to hurt for yourself.

I had tucked her away into the deepest recesses of my mind, into the darkest corners of my heart, that unfortunate young woman I once knew so well, so intimately, that I could not have distinguished between her and me. I thought I could leave her behind, as I had left my family behind; thought I could forget, get by without her.

But that day on the rooftop with the sun warming my face and the wind whipping away my tears, I knew this could not be. I had lost a vital piece of myself, of who I am and who I was. I had to reclaim her, to re-forge the connection between her and me, to integrate us, the former she and the current me.

The following day I added the final segment to my memoir. It depicts perhaps the most important part of our journey together because it’s the story of our transition, from her into me. The story of how a dauntless young woman somehow managed to dig her way out of a hole of despair, to hold onto hope in a sea of hopelessness, to fight a battle she had little to no chance of winning. Because what I discovered, when I opened the door to let her back into my life, was that much of my strength lies not with me, but with her. And as I find myself facing a new set of trials I finally understand how much I need her, how firmly I must grasp hold of the young woman I used to be, for she, more than I, has the power to persevere, to overcome, to survive.

Perhaps I do not like the memories she brings. Perhaps I would prefer to allow her to settle quietly into the dust of my personal history, to let her remain forever buried, as my mother is now. But with her inside me I need not shy away from fear, from pain. She copes with fear. She handles pain. She is, and always has been, subject.

I cannot be subject without her. But together, we can be.

***

Update: I am thrilled to announce that my essay “On Writing My Memoir” has been selected for inclusion in Diane DeBella’s I Am Subject anthology! Please click the image below or visit iamsubject.com to learn more.

For more information about my memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness – available November 7th in paperback and audiobook, and available now for Kindle pre-order – please click the image below or visit the book’s webpage.

Out! in That’s Life Fast Fiction Quarterly

“Out!” appeared in the Summer 2014 (Australian summer) issue of That’s Life Fast Fiction Quarterly. Tell me what you think!

OUT!

“GET OUT!” a girlish voice shouted in exasperation, unbelievably audible even from across the house, possibly even from across the town. Squealing boyish laughter followed it; fed on it.

“Get out, I said!! Get out of my room!!”

Jake laughed again, louder, nearly giggling with gleeful abandon. “I am out!” he howled back at her triumphantly. “I’m way out here in the hall!”

I didn’t need to get up to look; I could visualize the scene from where I sat cringing at the desk in my office. Jake standing grinning in the hall, gawking at his year-older sister through her open door, the tips of his sneakers defiantly resting just over the edge of her lintel.

“Go away!” Katie yelled, her piercing cry prompting the neighbor’s hounds into a frenzy of agonized howling. “I don’t like you!”

Jake only cackled harder, his small fists slapping like drumsticks against the hollow-sounding sheetrock.

“I mean it!! I don’t like you!”

“I don’ wike you eiver!” he hurled back indistinctly, still chuckling. From the muffled sound of it, probably poking his tongue out at her.

You’re not supposed to interfere, I reminded myself forcibly, massaging my temples in a futile attempt to flatten the thick, bulging veins that had popped out palpably from the sides of my skull. That’s what the parenting books said; let them fight it out amongst themselves. Easy for them to say, I grumbled internally. They didn’t have to suffer through the screeching.

“JAKE!” Katie shrieked suddenly, her voice rising to a pitch that pained my ears and carved a new crack in my glasses. “I – don’t – want – you – in – my – room!” she erupted, nearly breathless with childish fury and indignation. “Get – out!!” Apparently he’d crossed the line in teasing her; trampled the border between her space and his.

“What?!” he yelled back with mock innocence. “I’m not doing anything!” I heard rigorous, rhythmic tapping noises and pictured him performing a slap-happy dance-routine in the hall by her door.

Suddenly there was a loud thunk and a louder cry, a boyish yell of astonishment and pain.

“Uh-oh, Katie!! You’re gonna be in so much trouble! I’m telling!”

“Good!” she retorted scathingly, ostensibly unperturbed by the formidable threat. “I’ll tell what you did, too.”

“I don’t care! Oh no, I don’t! Oh, Mom! Mo-om!”

I wondered what the parenting counselors would think if I pretended I didn’t hear it. I wasn’t sure if I cared.

“Mom!” Jake yelled, bursting into my office with all of the sound and fury of a string of firecrackers going off unexpectedly in the middle of May. “Katie threw a shoe at me! Hit me right here on the head!” He pointed cheerfully at the nasty wound, a small pinkish tint barely visible beneath my fluorescent lights.

“Looks more like a sandal,” I contended calmly, bending closer to examine the visible results of the near-fatal blow. “You don’t seem hurt.”

“But I am!” he expounded happily. “You should punish her; yes, you should!”

“He started it!” Katie yelled, exploding in turn through my doorway as if her catapult was parked right outside. She glared hatefully at her little brother, the hotness of her anger causing the freshly watered leaves of my poor defenseless office plant to wilt in dismay.

“No, I didn’t, you did!”

“Yes, you did, you know you did!”

“I know you are, but what am I?!”

“I’m rubber and you’re glue…”

“GET OUT!!” I shouted suddenly, snatching up my plant and clutching it to my chest as if it were my one true friend. “Get out of my room!!”

They stopped. Turned to glance thoughtfully at one other and hushed. Retreated silently from my office, sadly into the unknown depths of the rest of the house, while I scolded myself over my own childish temper tantrum.

I can’t lie. I enjoyed the quiet in spite of myself.

An hour later I tiptoed gingerly into the empty kitchen, still feeling a little guilty over my impatient outburst and considering whether I ought to compensate with everyone’s favorite dinner and maybe ice cream to boot. Through the wide doorway down the hall I could see them: my two kids lying serenely next to each other on the living room floor, companionably assembling a five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle I’d gotten them for Christmas. Their argument as long forgotten as Mom’s unusual fit of anger, their renewed friendship ensured as long as the delicate balance between sibling love and sibling rivalry was carefully maintained. A balance that might be upset by the smallest act, the tiniest sound, the most frivolous word, the most meager interruption to their peaceful co-existence. Maybe they had something there, after all, those parenting books with their recommendations of non-interference.

I ducked unnoticed back into my office; returned to the smooth stillness of my walls and my work, reassured that my children were safe, my family once again loving and intact. A short time later my husband came in from the garage, the blissfully quiet haven in which he’d passed his leisurely afternoon, his work-boots clunking hard against the laminate flooring as if entirely unconcerned about who heard or observed them. “We got a while until dinner?” he boomed, thrusting aside the door of my office with a bang and energetically brushing the dust from his big black mustache onto my still-quivering houseplant. “I was thinking of patching that hole in the living room wall,” he continued, staring at me curiously as I leapt from my rocking, rolling chair, waving my hands incomprehensibly in a frantic effort to shush him.

“Late dinner tonight,” I whispered, silencing his half-uttered response with a kiss while I wondered how many minutes or hours the newfound peace might reign in our little kingdom if only we left our children alone. “But stay out of their room.”

Out2