for my beloved teachers Mary Edwards Shaner, 1942-2021 Christopher Irwin Bursk, 1943-2021
Did you pause, your thumb upon the latch, to equivocate, to hold the memory of your love’s face, or was it clearly time?
Did you savor your slow suspension as a red rock balanced against a cerulean sky, no fear of crumbling on its fall?
I don’t think you rushed into the jet night gleaming ahead. I hope you coasted, the way a heron teases the lake that waits to embrace it.
top Photo by: mike van den bos/Unsplash.comi
JANE EDNA MOHLER is a Bucks County Poet Laureate Emeritus (Pennsylvania) and a two-time Pushcart nominee. Kelsay Books published her collection Broken Umbrellas (2019.) Recent publications include Gargoyle, American Journal of Poetry, and Quartet. Jane is Co-Editor of Poetry for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. She has been on faculty of the Bay to Ocean and Caesura conferences for multiple years.
Adventures in Forgetfulness from Bay to Ocean Journal2022
…as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones. ― Billy Collins
My reading glasses are missing. The pair with green frames. I’ve looked everywhere. Well, clearly not everywhere. I have at least ten pairs of reading glasses stashed around the house – bedside, desk, kitchen, bathroom. Anywhere I might need to distinguish the AA batteries from the AAA, to press the right buttons on the TV remote, to learn if my blue sweater can survive the dryer.
I try not to obsess. Still, I look multiple times in the most obvious places, search the car twice, rifle through pockets in the jackets I’ve worn in the last two weeks. They’ll turn up. Probably when I’m looking for something else. That’s how I found my favorite pen. In a pants pocket where I thought I’d left my keys. The keys are another story.
Things turn up, other things go missing. The questions remain. Where did I put it? Why isn’t it where I thought I put it? Where I remembered putting it?
I’m in my sixties when I notice my short-term memory isn’t what it used to be. I struggle to remember the title of a book I recently read, the name of a favorite Chinese restaurant, the model year of the car I drive. “Senior moment,” I learn to say with a sheepish smile. My friends do it too. Nothing to worry about. Right?
But I can almost feel the emptiness in my brain where useful and useless information used to hang out. Sometimes I remember the first letter or a sound-alike. I tell myself the rest will come. And occasionally it does. The name of the restaurant arrives while I’m cooking dinner or walking the dog.
Three years before he died, my brother Phil phoned to tell me he’d been diagnosed with “mild cognitive impairment.” Every day I think about what he said next: “A few years ago, I thought I was having memory issues. The doctor said it was nothing to worry about. But there was something wrong with my mind back then. I could feel it.”
I wish I’d asked him what that felt like. I wish we’d talked about our mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and her mother’s dementia. But mostly I wonder if he sensed blank spaces where facts and figures once were stored.
Each time my memory fails in some trivial pursuit, I question my competence. Any small lapse causes me to wonder, Is this what Phil felt?
Did I feed the dog? Or is the visual image I have of scooping kibble into his bowl a holdover over from yesterday?
Did I lock the door? Or did I just close it and leave while checking my jacket pocket for the grocery list?
Did I turn off the oven? Or was I distracted by putting the meal together before the food got cold?
Google “memory problems” and some “expert” will advise you to make lists. Really? You think I haven’t thought of that?
A list is only as good as the memory of the list maker. For example: • In your haste to leave the house, you leave the grocery list on the counter. • You’ve omitted something important from your list. What is it? • The list is in your pocket or purse, but you neglect to consult it. • While shopping, you put the list down somewhere and forget to pick it up.
What does it mean that I can’t trust my memory? I see myself stuck in an endless game of Where’s Waldo? fruitlessly searching for misplaced objects and random words.
Heredity plays a role in almost all diseases. Alzheimer’s is no exception. Experts say the risk increases if more than one family member has the disease. I remind myself that my mother’s two older sisters lived to be 88 and 92 with no serious memory issues. My mother and brother were both smokers, a risk factor in many life-threatening diseases. I never smoked. But last year, I turned eighty.
Where did my words go? They’re not so much on the tip of my tongue as just out of my reach like the wine glasses on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. If I struggle for a word while writing, the thesaurus becomes my friend. It suggests replacements for “struggle” – strive, try, strain – until I decide that “struggle” is best.
The other day I needed the word for making something sound better than it really is. An “ism,” but that was as far as my brain would take me. The thesaurus couldn’t help, so I waded through websites that offered whitewash, romanticize, glorify, sugarcoat and spin before arriving at “euphemism.”
I can’t carry a thesaurus to lunch with friends when we fill our conversation with whatchamacallit, what’s-his-name, thingamajig. We resort to creative imagery – “that dial on the dashboard.” Someone calls out “speedometer” as if she’s a contestant in a quiz show.
My mother was in her eighties when she stopped playing cards. “I was making stupid mistakes,” she said. Why wasn’t I alarmed? A lifelong card and Mah Jong player, Mom loved the swift interplay between her brain and the hand she’d been dealt. Probably I thought it a temporary lapse. Soon she’d be able to play again. I hadn’t yet learned that aging is not like catching a cold.
A few years ago, while I was visiting my parents in the dining room of their senior living community, a woman pushing a walker approached one of the servers, a teenager with several earrings in each ear. “Pam,” she asked, “did I eat lunch?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. M. Are you hungry?” Pam signaled to another server who came over to assist.
Three women at a nearby table took in this scene. “There’s what’s-her-name,” one said. “Poor thing. Doesn’t remember if she ate.”
I did not want my mother to be like Mrs. M. I didn’t want her card-playing buddies thinking “poor thing” if she mistook a nine of hearts for the six of diamonds.
I don’t write any more. At least not the way I used to. I have trouble telling a story in order from beginning to end. I jump back and forth, pinball from past to present, swivel from serious discussion to flippant remark, the way I desert the half-emptied dishwasher to do a load of laundry or rummage in the freezer for something to defrost for dinner.
Since I can’t always find the right words, I mine, repurpose, recycle, cut-and-paste from older work as if piecing together a mosaic from broken cups and plates. It’s the way one might assemble a meal from leftovers – the way yesterday’s meatloaf plus jarred salsa and grated cheese can become a plate of nachos.
I’m not writing. I’m Scarlett O’Hara making a dress out of draperies. Or am I Carol Burnett imitating Scarlett making a dress from drapes but forgetting to remove the curtain rod?
The last time I saw my mother, she was sitting in a wheelchair wearing a robe and nightgown, waiting for transfer to another room in the nursing home. Her piercing green eyes darted right and left. I knew that look – part worry, part intense concentration. If you didn’t know she had fewer than 36 hours to live, you might have thought she was working something out – composing a grocery list or trying to remember where she’d left her favorite sweater.
Two months earlier, she’d had a fall that left her complaining of constant pain. A team of specialists plus CAT scan, x-ray and MRI found no physical origin.
“We’ve tested your mother thoroughly,” her doctor said, flipping page after page of her file as if the quantity of paper spoke for itself. “Here.” He handed me the thick folder and left. Standing alone at the nurses’ counter, I heard the loudspeaker paging doctors, patients calling nurses. In the air the aroma of grilled meat mingled with the pungent scent of disinfectant. On a neurologist’s report printed on shocking pink paper, the word “diagnosis” jumped out at me: Alzheimer’s-type dementia.
Had the changes been too gradual to notice? Was this like the fable about why frogs don’t jump out of a pot of simmering water? Foolishly, I’d blamed failing eyesight for her card-playing problems.
I left the folder on the counter and went to visit my mother. She lay in bed, hands crossed on her chest. I kissed her cheek. “Hello, darling,” she said. She called all her loved ones “darling.” Still, I wondered why she didn’t use my name.
Where is the line between losing your eyeglasses and losing yourself?
At the Alzheimer’s Association website, I find information on “typical age-related” changes in memory and behavior. “Misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them” is a common occurrence for seniors like me. But a person living with Alzheimer’s Disease may “put things in unusual places” and be “unable to review their steps” to find them (emphasis added).
I think of a scene in the movie Away from Her, the story of Fiona and Grant, a couple married almost 50 years. We learn Fiona is afflicted with Alzheimer’s through an early scene where the couple clears up after dinner. Grant watches Fiona hum softly to herself while she washes and dries a frying pan, then places it in the freezer.
Where, I wonder, will I find my eyeglasses? I can only hope they’ll be someplace logical – in a drawer or on the floor – but please not in the microwave or refrigerator.
I think about my recent lapses: discovering I’d poured myself two cups of coffee for breakfast, finding my keys in a zippered purse compartment after “thoroughly” searching the purse. How many slip-ups do you get before people start referring to you as “poor thing?”
I’m late to meet a friend for our weekly walk in the park. My keys are not on the table near the front door, where I almost always put them.
Why does so much forgetting revolve around keys? Is it because they control our comings and goings? Because losing keys to house, car or office can be a major inconvenience – the expense of a locksmith, the embarrassment of seeking help from family member, friend or stranger, the frustration of feeling incompetent?
Who are we without keys that signify we have a home, an automobile, a post office or safe deposit box? It’s no accident that we offer lovers the keys to our hearts.
Without my keys, I am helpless, locked out of my life.
We guard against this possibility. Hang keys on special hooks, keep spare keys, share keys with neighbors. I grab my extra car key, and I’m off to meet my friend. When I return, I retrace my steps and (yes!) find the missing keys in the pocket of the jacket I wore two days ago when I last used the car.
Ask Google a serious question about age-related dementia and you’ll find plenty of research and serious discussion to shed light on the subject. You’ll also encounter a selection of quips, jokes, wisecracks and witticisms that range from clever to tiresome to tasteless.
Right now, I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time – I think I’ve forgotten this before. – Steven Wright, comedian
There are five great things about having dementia: 5. You never have to watch reruns on television. 4. You are always meeting new people. 3. You don’t have to remember the whines and complaints of your spouse. 2. You can hide your own Easter eggs. 1. Mysteries are always interesting. – AHAjokes.com
A doctor recently told me that I have cancer and now he’s saying that I also have dementia. At least I don’t have cancer. – Anonymous
What’s so funny? What could be amusing about watching the same movie over and over, because you can’t recall seeing it? If this happened to someone I knew, I’d find it unspeakably sad.
Things I Don’t Forget/Things I Can Still Do • Grandchildren’s birthdays • Medical appointments • Pay bills on time • Drive places (supermarket, library, friends’ houses) • Prepare and file taxes • Teach writing classes • Write (well, sometimes)
A two-column chart from the National Institute on Aging distinguishes “normal aging” from Alzheimer’s disease. Forgetting what day it is but remembering it later, or sometimes forgetting which word to use are considered “normal.” But losing track of the date, or season, or being unable to carry on a conversation are symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
My brother told me he took a test to assess his dementia status. The doctor asked him to remember three words, say, house, pencil, pie. After answering a few questions and following simple directions, you either can or can’t remember those three things. He couldn’t.
I’d like to believe I could. Most of the time I can remember what day it is, can retrace my steps to find missing objects. When requesting a book from the library’s website, I type in my 13-digit account number from memory.
But my eyeglasses are still missing.
top Photo by: redowan dhrubo/Unsplash.comi
Before retiring to Rehoboth Beach and discovering the joys of writing creatively, SARAH BARNETT had careers as teacher, librarian and lawyer. She is vice president of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild and enjoys composing essays and stories while walking her dog on the beach. In 2020 she received a Delaware Division of the Arts Fellowship as an emerging writer in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Brevity Blog, Delmarva Review, Delaware Beach Life and other publications. Sarah was recently a guest blogger for Brevity magazine. You can read her essay, "Writing in my Ninth Decade," here.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers
Nothing of Insignificance from Bay to Ocean Journal2020
Sitting on the foyer floor, Kate Monroe felt her frustration rising, the familiar burn starting low in her abdomen, working its way past her chest, slowly climbing to her throat, burning, burning. Why had she offered to help Emily when she barely knew her? Wait, that was not quite accurate. She knew a lot about Emily--where she had grown up, her childhood accomplishments and disappointments, her relationships with her siblings, even her artistic ambitions.
Kate had met Emily months earlier at a weekly workshop, “Writing Your Memoir”, facilitated by a local author who had just published her own life story. And during those workshops, Kate had listened to the arc of Emily’s life as she described her childhood to adolescence. Sadly, too often the workshop sessions disintegrated into protracted readings by bitter souls seeking sympathy for their tales of injustice, criticism, and imagined offense. But Emily had seemed different, more thoughtful, more satisfied, and her writing bordered on the lyrical. So, during the mid-morning break, when Emily mentioned that she was going through a divorce and would soon be moving from the family home into a local condo, Kate had offered a few hours of her time to help with the packing and schlepping of lightweight boxes. Kate herself had been divorced for years and knew the stress could be overwhelming.
On this January Thursday, Kate found herself sitting on the hardwood floor at the foot of the stairs in Emily’s foyer. As she looked around, she realized she was in trouble and should have made an excuse when she first arrived, feigning either illness or a forgotten dentist appointment.
To the left was a living room where no living had occurred for years. The space was crammed with towering piles of plastic boxes, some empty, most full, piled under and over other cardboard boxes, a few from the local liquor store, giving Kate hope that Emily would take an occasional drink to calm her nerves. There were hundreds of makeshift containers, anything with a bottom and sides that could hold “stuff,” most purchased, some gifted, all excessive, providing safe harbor for clones, duplicates, and facsimiles. Why have only one item if you can have forty-three? In this maze, Kate recognized Quaker oatmeal cylinders, metal coffee tins, abandoned jewelry boxes, shoe boxes, baskets, and hundreds of plastic bags emblazoned with the names of local retailers--Target, Pier One, Harris Teeter, CVS, Marshall’s.
At the opposite end of the room, five shelves of built-in bookcases suffered the weight of DVDs, figurines, vases, dried flowers, CDs, pens and pencils, notebooks, and even a book or two. A small portable TV huddled inside the kneehole of the desk. The living room offered no safe passage. Although a sofa and four chairs hugged the walls--at least Kate thought she glimpsed four chairs--there was no place to sit.
To the right, Kate saw a narrow path leading from the foyer through the dining room to the kitchen, where no countertops were visible under the mass of foodstuffs, dishes, water bottles, and papers including a Baltimore Sun from last month. Scattered notepads, appliance instruction booklets, and lists of never-attempted tasks covered the center island. Around the corner, stacks of books, piled ten to fifteen high, were precariously parked against the window seat just below the bay window. Had these books been banished from the living room bookcases to make room for more decorative items? Kate guessed that not much food preparation occurred in that kitchen and even wondered what might have been stuffed temporarily into the oven and microwave, only to be later abandoned.
In the dining room, hundreds of breakable items–water glasses, wine goblets, china plates, and pottery--infested every flat surface including the windowsills and floor. The credenza and a hutch were crammed with linens and additional china sets, while housing six complete sets of silver cutlery. A small non-working crystal chandelier perched in the corner atop three cardboard boxes, its electric cord wrapped around its stem, two bulbs missing.
So this Thursday morning, Kate found herself sitting cross-legged on the only cleared space available, the foyer floor. Despite her misgivings, Kate had decided to stay, and she watched as Emily began pulling hats from the foyer closet’s upper shelves, mostly winter hats, woolen, blacks and browns, promising to warm the head, threatening to destroy the hairdo. “How many hats do you have?” Kate asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Emily replied as she swept around the growing pile. “There are more upstairs.”
Emily was tiny with a short, gray-blonde pixie haircut, porcelain skin, bright azure eyes and a ready smile. Her voice wavered as she spoke, rasping her words from her throat past her lips, not stuttering but somehow tentative, as though her words were probationary, waiting for acknowledgement and even acceptance. Even so, there was a tinge of lemon in her voice.
Kate recalled that when she first offered help, Emily warned that she was a hoarder, but had qualified her statement: “But I am a clean hoarder.” When Kate probed further, Emily described her “collecting” as piles of papers, sets of dishes, assortments of photos, the un-organized assemblage of memories from a 32-year marriage. Still, Kate was not prepared for the overwhelming volume of stuff engulfing the home’s first floor.
“There are more hats upstairs.” Emily glanced hopefully at Kate.
“Well, let’s get them all down here so you can make informed decisions,” Kate said. “Your job now is to find every hat you own and bring them here.”
“First, I need a bottle of water,” Emily deflected. Kate soon learned this was Emily’s tactic to delay the inevitable. For Emily, decisions were hard, if not impossible, threatening her with an uncomfortable finality, no matter how trivial or insignificant.
Fifteen minutes later, after multiple trips to upstairs bedrooms, the pile had grown to ninety-two hats--straw, brimmed, fedoras, berets, bonnets, even a cowboy hat, mostly muted colors, with an occasional hot pink or cerulean blue whimsy thrown in the mix. In what would become her routine, Emily plucked each hat from the pile, slowly caressing and inspecting it, conjuring all the reasons it should go into the “keep” pile. Kate hoped the hat corral would be an easy place to start. “After all,” she thought, “how much attachment can you have to a hat?”
Mustering her calmest voice, Kate set down the first rule. “You do not need ninety-two hats, Emily. You may keep ten.”
Although arbitrary, Kate felt “ten” was reasonable and knew she had to start strong. This reduction rule would become the foundation for any progress that day or in the coming weeks. A stack of 142 picture frames? You can keep twenty. A pile of 714 audio cassettes? You can keep fifty. There was neither rhyme nor reason to Kate’s required percentages, just an inexorable winnowing of “too many.”
Kate sympathized that Emily had suffered a painful childhood with an unavailable mother and bullying siblings and was now struggling with an acrimonious divorce. The marital animosity became glaringly evident within minutes of Kate’s arrival that first day, when Emily’s husband, Malcolm, poked his shaggy, bearded face around the corner to carp about their hat-sorting activity.
“Em-i-LEEEE” he whined, “do you HAVE to put all those hats on the floor? What if I need to get to the front door to get out? What if there’s a fire?” Kate considered retorting “What if you need to get to the kitchen?” but thought better of it.
Of average height, Malcolm’s hunched-over posture made him appear even smaller, beaten down, shuffling through the kitchen and dining room with neither energy nor purpose, eyes downcast. Over the next several months, Emily would remain the target of his sing-song, obscure criticism.
Kate sat patiently, hunched over the pile of hats on the foyer floor in the two-story brick colonial, on a heavily treed lot of oaks and maples, backing onto lush open space—prime real estate in that Maryland community. Kate worried that helping Emily would require digging deep into her own shallow well of patience. She began to think of this activity as an exercise in psychological karate. She needed to disable Emily’s deep-seated hoarding habits while at the same time building up her confidence and self-esteem.
Kate, whom everyone considered organized, knew how to get results, worshiping at the altar of the Four Piles of Decluttering--Keep, Sell, Donate, Recycle/Trash. She would soon learn that Emily would need to add two more piles: Gifts I Once Bought to Give to Friends and Still Need To as well as Items I Bought for My Son Jack but Never Gave Him. Not a good sign.
“Oh, but I like the color of this one, such a pretty rose” or “Look at this cute kitten on the hat brim.” Emily pleaded for each hat, cap, beanie. A color or a memory or a family gift or an unreasoned “but I like it” constituted her persistent defense. Every hat was important.
Kate took a breath and in her gentlest tone, repeated “Emily, you can keep ten hats--only ten--and donate the rest for others to enjoy.” Kate watched Emily’s face fall and then slowly transition to a fragile determination suggesting she would be able to do this … maybe … hopefully … with help.
Over the next few weeks, Kate would return to the colonial on the lovely lot, always limiting her assistance to two hours, for the magnitude of the task had become emotionally overwhelming. Emily’s devoted attachment to things was the anchor for her personality. Kate realized Emily feared she might actually disappear without the physical evidence that she had lived, that she had travelled to Japan, that she had listened to CDs, that she once married and had a son, that she had cut out important articles to read later. Nothing was insignificant, not paper clips or broken pencils or inkless pens. Emily needed to touch each item, tell how each became part of her life, and finally evaluate its usefulness or beauty or value as a memory trigger.
The next few weeks, Kate was reduced to repeating the rules and covertly slipping broken items into the trash pile before Emily began describing all the ways she could fix things. According to Emily, she had scores of friends for whom she had bought gifts, never delivered but now ready. Kate thought Emily would need to live to be 110 in order to glue all the china, read all the saved articles, and frame and hang all the artwork she wanted to keep.
Kate also knew she served as a buffer to Malcolm’s incessant criticism and whining as he hovered in the next room. What had started as an innocent offer to help someone during a difficult time had left Kate frustrated and irritable, often admonishing Emily to “Pay attention. Stay focused. You do not need forty-six eight-by-ten wooden picture frames. You do not have that much wall space.” And Emily would comply, temporarily, only to return to her routine of touch, remember, evaluate.
For several days, they continued to catalogue their way through the center of the living room. One day Kate turned to a five-foot-tall Regency walnut bachelor’s chest on the south wall, its five serpentine drawers sitting atop four clawed feet. Kate, knowing full well what the answer would be, asked “Is that chest already emptied?”
“Oh no,” said Emily, “I am sure it is full.” And to Kate’s dismay it was—filled with greeting cards, most bought and never sent, folded and faded, gaudy and glittered, and by Kate’s estimate numbering more than 600. Quick calculations at $3 per card, a conservative average over the last twenty years, and the unopened contents of that bachelor’s chest equaled nearly $1,800 in wasted opportunity.
Kate, sapped of every drop of patience, turned to Emily, sitting across the room happily sorting through ancient audio cassettes and mumbling tales of why each was her favorite. “Do you know how many greeting cards you have here? You could start your own Hallmark store. Have you ever thought of the time and money wasted when these cards were stored and then ignored for years?”
Emily looked up, hurt. “I don’t think about it at the time. And I told you I was a hoarder. This isn’t helpful.”
And suddenly Kate remembered that, yes, Emily had warned her. And then surprisingly, she remembered her former husband’s piles of paper, piles upon pile, and collections of books, stacked on the floor and tables throughout their small apartment during the early years. And how “stuff” continued to accumulate, relentlessly, even after they moved into a much larger home in the suburbs. Kate had almost forgotten the unending clutter, buried the memory deep. And now she wondered if her offer to help Emily was a counterfeit penance for her inability to save her marriage, to clear the physical and emotional disarray of their lives. No time to think about it now.
Kate pressed on, frustrated after weeks of biting her tongue, deflecting Malcolm’s snarky comments, and bolstering Emily’s confidence for imperceptible progress.
“Doesn’t this make you mad? Or at least sad? Money spent on these cards could have been a trip to Paris off-season. Or a week in Florida last winter when it was so horribly cold and stormy.”
Across the room, Emily became smaller, teared up, and refused to answer.
Drained, Kate knew she had to leave and that she could not return. She had hoped to help, and she had in some ways, but Emily’s patterns were too deep-seated, her world view too narrow, her emotion too raw. Progress had been made. Kate had to admit that. But Emily was still months from getting the house presentable for sale.
As she headed for the door, Kate turned, admonishing Emily as gently as possible.
“Look, you have made good progress here over the last two months. And I want you to channel my voice and questions as you continue to get rid of your stuff. You’ve certainly heard me enough. Let me know how you’re doing and good luck!” And she meant it.
In April, Kate visited Emily’s new condo, helping her unload bulky rugs from her small SUV, into the newly painted and freshly washed condo. It was a lovely ground-floor unit with floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto a small patio, just the size for a small table and two chairs. It bordered a park. But Kate was saddened to see that already the ghosts of accumulation and indecision had permeated every single inch of what could have been Emily’s fresh start.
While they continued to text each other, Kate knew she could not face the condo’s re-creation of the gathering of objects as a cure for loneliness, just in a smaller space.
Then in early June, she received a long text from Emily, “We have a family coming to see the house on Saturday!!! But I have not made enough progress. Malcolm and I both marveled at how effective you were working with me. Would you be able to help me for a bit tomorrow going through my stuff? I already have donated a ton but need to do much more.”
Kate demurred at first but offered two hours the following week, selfishly curious as to the progress Emily had made.
Kate had come to believe her sympathy for Emily stemmed from Kate’s own parents, who had lived through the Depression and never threw away anything that could be of use to anyone. After her father had passed, Kate discovered a box of 116 light bulbs in his garage: refrigerator bulbs, oven bulbs, projector bulbs, clothes dryer bulbs, incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, CFL, LED. Kate mused he had probably even saved a bulb that would fit Emily’s forsaken dining room chandelier. But where her dad had saved functional items from necessity, Emily hoarded from emotional need.
And the more Kate thought about it, the more she wondered about her own failed marriage. Was there a deep emotional need on her husband’s part that Kate was unable or unwilling to fulfill? She now admitted she had ignored the clutter and had mustered neither the skills nor the dedication to resolve their issues. And she was sad.
Kate realized she did not know how to deal with Emily’s issues either. She could only give her rules, offer her skills, and hope that somehow Emily could channel Kate’s voice as she continued room by room, closet by closet. Kate was soon to find out.
Three days later, Kate appeared once more at the front door of the colonial, hoping for clear floors and usable furniture, and she was pleasantly surprised. While some boxes and baskets still hugged the walls of each room, gone were the piles, the bags, the stacked and discarded detritus of a life never quite enough. Malcolm was still shuffling and whining throughout the house, but at least now he could move safely without fear of tripping or falling.
“Wow, this is quite a difference!” she complimented Emily who grinned in response. “What is on the agenda today?”
“Upstairs bedroom closet!” Emily trumpeted, proud that she had graduated from entire rooms to a lone closet.
Having never been on the second floor, Kate feared what she would find. But all floors were clear, boxes neatly stacked, except for the closet, which reminded Kate of the old Fibber McGee closet, which when opened, buried Fibber with its contents. This was not quite as bad. Kate was in no danger, but the closet had no nooks or crannies that had not been filled.
As Emily sat on a small stool, Kate began pulling the boxes, bags, and plastic containers, one by one from the depths. And Emily once again held each item, touching, telling, and evaluating. Used make-up that should have been discarded years before, Emily designated for the donate pile, until Kate reminded her of health restrictions. Multiple gifts for her son Jack, bought for an 8-year-old, Emily relegated to the keep pile in case her 22-year-old might possibly want them. But Kate’s final defeat was the eighty-five sets of shoulder pads, some rotted from the heat of too many summers stored deep in that closet. Evidently, decades earlier, Emily had carefully removed each set from fashionable jackets and blouses, and now, thirty years later, proclaimed all the reasons she should keep them. Kate knew now that she was truly done.
She finished up her two-hour commitment and wished Emily well, realizing that while her help might have been a band-aid, Emily needed surgery. As she walked down the sidewalk from the lovely colonial in the Maryland suburbs, she knew she had done her best. And now Kate had to let go of the hope that she could help Emily reduce her reliance on things to boost her self-worth and self-confidence.
Unexpectedly, Kate discovered her offer to help Emily clear out her suburban home filled with stuff helped Kate resolve the quiet guilt she had carried for fourteen years. She had always believed that if she had only been smarter and worked harder, her marriage would have lasted. Now she felt that lingering burden lift as she recognized none of it would have made a difference.
top Photo by: onur bahcivancilar/Unsplash.com
DONNA ROTHBERT is a retired corporate executive and former English teacher dividing her time between Delmarva and Reston VA. A native Marylander, she has lived and worked in Texas, Connecticut, and Virginia and has traveled to forty-eight of the fifty states. Her essays appeared in the 30th Anniversary Anthology of the Maryland Writers' Association, Thirty Ways to Love Maryland, and her short stories have appeared in Beach Dreams and Bay to Ocean 2020.
Tara a. Elliott
Deadrise from Bay to Ocean Journal2021
And so, I take you into the boat, flat-bottom flaking sharp & gray, into the steady vibration of engine, diesel fumes rising like broken wind in brackish air, into the brashness of summer sun burning shoulders crisp and fattening the morning shadows, the newborn screech of the gulls hovering as if attached by wire— the fresh sweat, the cheap beer, the rotting eels, the slick greenness of blue crabs mounting and scuttling in bushel baskets, the bright whiteness of hull against an unbound Maryland sky.
top Photo by: dave hoefler/Unsplash.comi
TARA A. ELLIOTT’s poems have appeared in The TAOS Journal of International Poetry & Art, Stirring, Gargoyle and The American Journal of Poetry, among others. The president of Eastern Shore Writers Association (ESWA), she is also the director of Maryland’s Salisbury Poetry Week, and serves as co-chair of the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference. She recently received an Independent Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. For more information, visit: www.taraaelliott.com
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers
An Egret and His Property from the upcoming Bay to Ocean Journal2022
my childhood, the marsh across the sound appeared impossible to reach
without a motorboat or the skills of a bird. But the land’s slick,
emerald blades waved for me to come and explore its exposed shores. I
wanted to wade in the channel waters and step over shells like its
resident white egret.
measured distance grew more manageable in my young adult years. With
access to a bright red kayak, I answered the long-standing invitation
and paddled with strong strokes in the scorching sun from my sandbar to
the edge of the knee-high grass growing in the wetlands.
expected a soft arrival and a glide upon the sand. But thick, mushy mud
stopped my boat at the habitat’s edge, and the majestic bird I had
hoped to befriend took flight at my landing. His outstretched, pleated
wings and dangling stick feet navigated toward the very dock from which I
had launched my vessel.
have often thought I should not have encroached upon the stomping
grounds of the three-foot-tall bird without his permission. Innocent
invader that I was, he fled from me with suspicion. And in seeing that
we couldn’t share the verdant space, which I admired and he roamed, I
looked to end my trespass.
my boat from the sticky swamp sludge, sweat upon my forehead, muscles
stiff from my struggle with the oars, I retreated toward home across the
green, choppy saltwater.
Sea spray slapped my reddened face. The afternoon wind rushed my ears. Rocking swells threatened me with seasickness.
sure enough, my elusive friend the egret met my arrival. The aloof,
feathered ambassador paced among tidepools on the sand at the foot of my
cottage, which stood in the center of a row of ostentatious houses
along the waterfront.
I saw from afloat what the exotic loner witnessed daily from his prime property across the way.
line of dwellings were not nests hidden in the landscape. They were
monstrosities overgrown with cement driveways, tidy carpets of thirsty
Bermuda grass, and, at my house, a two-story oleander with green, pointy
leaves and enticing fuchsia blossoms swaying next to my rickety steps.
The flirty, toxic bush beckoned the elegant bird to wander closer.
I made my way up the yard, giving my boat several strenuous tugs.
sleek egret skipped through the air and landed a few cottages down on
the sandbar. He studied the nearby shallow water, and, as if using
chopsticks, captured a floppy minnow in his pointy yellow beak. The bird
swallowed the catch down his agile, thin neck, followed by a second
helping of fish plucked from the tide. The well-fed fowl shook his head
in satisfaction and paused as if in thought.
my full attention, the bird uttered a series of throaty clucks that
sounded like the slap of a playing card against a child’s bicycle
spokes. And before lifting his wings and heading back to his place in
the marsh, the creature poked his threatening mouth in my direction and
released a raspy call.
his frustration, I came to an unspoken understanding with the bird: I
will stay on my property so he can continue to live on his.
top Photo by: David Clode/unsplash.com
CAROLINE KALFAS writes from Woolwich Township, New Jersey. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various literary magazines including The Next Chapter, frogpond, Philadelphia Stories and several editions of Bay to Ocean. Most recently, she received third place (tie) in the ninth annual Golden Haiku Poetry Contest 2022 in Washington, DC. To read more about her work, visit carolinechatter.wordpress.com.
Problems with Diving from Bay to Ocean Journal 2021
Sometimes she’s afraid to jump. No, not on the blacktop playground, where she’s mastered Double-Dutch and excelled at Chinese jump rope. That’s solid ground. No, she’s afraid
of crashing on her head when she tries to hit the diving board, spring up in the air and slice through the water, arms and legs aligned in arrow-like perfection.
She freezes the day her father puts his arm across the board, a tan, muscled lever, a foot up in the air for her to clear. Tears well in her eyes, messengers of her failure, then shame rocks her body as her baby brother executes the dive like a dolphin.
Failing, failing in front of everyone at the pool that day. Yet in the woods with friends, she’s fearless. Standing atop a hill, grabbing the coiled metal ring
on the end of a bristly rope, swinging out over the rocky gorge, she moves in time to an inner metronome—then lands on beat, dropping down on the only patch of grass. Years later, she freezes at the thought of stepping onto a stage. Seeking out the feel of success
from her quarry-jumping days, she finds an extravagant mall that promises an indoor bungee jump. As if buoyed by an invisible parachute, she launches, unafraid.
top Photo by: Jess Zoerb/unsplash.com
ANN BRACKEN has published three poetry collections, The Altar of Innocence, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom and Once You’re Inside: Poetry Exploring Incarceration. Her memoir entitled Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery, will be published in late 2022. She serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, and co-facilitates the Wilde Readings Poetry Series in Columbia, Maryland. She volunteers as a correspondent for the Justice Arts Coalition, exchanging letters with incarcerated people to foster their use of the arts. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, her work has been featured on Best American Poetry, and she’s been a guest on Grace Cavalieri’s The Poet and The Poem radio show. Her advocacy work promotes using the arts to foster paradigm change in the areas of emotional wellness, education, and prison abolition. Website: www.annbrackenauthor.com
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