Dear Julia Next Year

IMG_2111On the morning of May 29th, 2015, my cousin, a longtime supporter of my writing, sent me a message telling me that he missed me – Eater Provocateur, aspiring MFK Fisher 2.0, the woman and writer I dream to be. I did not have the chance to write him back or lament how much I missed me too. I’d planned to put together a book on Blurb this summer; I hoped to send off essays to journals. I was going to travel my small Utah world and write about the people and pioneers in local food production. I would take thousands of photos, and throw myself into research. After giving so much of my energy to my students, this was EP’s summer to shine.

Instead, that afternoon, I received a phone call from an emergency room in southern Utah, notifying me that my father had been admitted for a heart attack and possible stroke. The doctors could not stabilize Dad’s blood pressure, so they arranged for him to be airlifted to Salt Lake City. Not yet grasping the severity of Dad’s condition, I inquired whether I should drive to Salt Lake that evening or wait until the following day. They said, “Go now.” I went. CICU surgeons operated on his dissected heart throughout the night. Though the surgery successfully repaired the aortic tear, a scan the next morning revealed a massive stroke in Dad’s brain and no hope for recovery. He was, effectively, brain-dead. I hugged the hull of his body and authorized permission for the removal of life support. In the span of twenty-four hours, on a sunny day at the start of summer break, my father died.

*

In the intervening weeks, I learned more about my father than I ever wanted to. I scanned every credit card bill, finding pages and pages of online book purchases, and several unpaid balances. I sorted mortgage bills from utilities, three heavily indebted properties deep. I filled garbage bags with remnants of his last meals and pieces of his life that only held significance to him. I culled a biographical narrative of his youth from epistolary threads and salvaged forget-me-nots. But death is mainly business and arithmetic. In death, my father amasses a debt of $200,000 and rising.

My father was generous to a fault, and he attracted “friends” who found ways to manipulate and capitalize on his generosity. My siblings and I had often wondered why our tenured professor father lived like a pauper. Now we know – we have the calendar notations and check stubs to prove how he shared his salary with several others: current, past, or potential paramours; graduate students fallen down on their luck; renters he felt too guilty to ask for rent… and went so far as to pay their utilities to spare them from financial duress. Some of these “friends” received money from Dad for decades; one seemed especially distressed to learn that she would no longer be receiving handouts from Dad’s non-existent estate. Generosity was clearly Dad’s high.

It is not my intent to smear my father’s name, but I struggled with fury: at Dad for being such a tender-hearted idiot, and, moreover, at those who took advantage of his kindness. I will say that I did not hesitate to close accounts without notifying the parties waiting for their “paychecks.” I have also collected as much of their personal information as I can with the intent to press charges if the need arises.

As a counterbalance, I also learned that my father was loved and valued beyond measure by people who were not bleeding his bank accounts. Emails and letters poured in as news of Dad’s death reached farther and farther into his social and professional circles. All expressed genuine shock and concern; all were kind. The volume was overwhelming. I dreaded checking my email for fear of the inevitable raw and heartfelt messages within. In a way, after my mother’s laughable funeral attendance, it felt validating that so many people cared for my father, people who did not take advantage of his generosity but instead expressed their gratitude and devotion to him. I cannot remember which of these dispelled the fury, at least temporarily.

*

I still find it hard to drag myself out of bed. I do, but it takes a very long time and a lot of internal negotiation. My biggest motivations are letting the dog out and making breakfast for my family. I haven’t been running, though I know I should. I’ve been drinking too much, though I know I should not. My appetite is gone. But I believe that hope is slowly returning.

Over the weekend, I officiated Dad’s memorial service for the family. I did not pass out or collapse in grief. I held my chin high, kept my voice and my eyes level, and honored my Dad the way children must sometimes do.

I give Dad one hour each day: to make calls, to contest charges, to forward copies of his death certificate. His final affairs sit in a box by the piano; I can once again see the surface of my dining room table.

*

Dear Julia Next Year,

Remember that, at one time, you valued compassion and empathy. You will get that back.
Remember that letting go leads to freedom. Let go.
You will smile and laugh again. It will just take some time to recover.
You will not be – cannot remain – this cynical and foul-tempered. It is not healthy and it is not you.
One morning, you will wake up and want to run/cook/sing/dance/write/ be yourself again. The lengthy internal negotiations will shift from “Should I get out of bed?” to “Why shouldn’t I get out of bed?”
The murderous rage against those who manipulated your father will subside into peevish irritation and hopefully humor that cuts deep.
The world exists outside your door, and you are not done with it yet.
You stand with those who love life. So stand up.

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

 

 

 

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They Say

Please, excuse me, bless you, and thank you.

Color in the lines.

Color outside the lines.

Dream big.

(But settle for small.)

Don’t talk politics or religion.

Speak your mind.

Shut up.

Speak up.

Say it again one more time.

Don’t you dare.

Be a friend.

Friends are great but enemies have more power.

Friends are worth more than sexual interests.

Sexual interests are worth more than friends.

Sexy (thin, strong, rich, et al.) equals happy.

Don’t be a jerk.

Don’t be a bitch.

Think for yourself.

Don’t stand out as someone who thinks independently.

Shine brightly.

Life lessons culminate in kindergarten.

We never stop learning.

Ask permission.

Never apologize.

Be brave.

Don’t be afraid to show weakness.

You’re not your parents.

You remind me so much of your dad. (And with his irreverent streak, too.)

You are lucky enough to hear your dad say, “Just be yourself, honey,” and it is the only advice you’ve ever heeded without doubt.

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

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Dear Dad

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My father at his most wonderful.

Dear Dad,

You’re in surgery now. The doctors say things like “ruptured aorta” and “stroke” and “EKG indicates heart attack.” All I hear is noise. I sit in this bleak surgical waiting room with artificial plants, canned air, and pre-recorded sports blaring on televisions spread throughout the area. I tried to mute the television but larger forces disabled the manual controls, so, while I should be contemplating these precious minutes in which your life rests, quite literally, in someone else’s hands, all I can hear are sports fans cheering, as if they were waiting for this. This noise-filled place seems specifically designed to torture people like you and me, who dwell most comfortably in silence and natural lighting. The upholstered chairs – a random mix of vinyl and polyester, scratched, torn, and pale – bear the scars of silence lovers who came before us. I have a searing headache and my eyes have swollen half shut. It’s been eight hours since I got the call about your accident.

*

Dear Dad,

For five years, you’ve been my only birth parent, and I have drawn strength from you. You seemed to sense that when I lost mom, I would need something much more, and you rose to the challenge without my asking. I should have risen to initiating the discussion about your care in case of you-know-what. I stubbornly refused to, and now nurses are inquiring about your insurance coverage, the largest determining factor in the quality of your care, and I have no answers for them. I am failing you. I don’t know if I am strong enough to face this world as an orphan.

*

Dear Dad,

After mom died, I swore off happy endings. But I lied. Deep down, I still believe that if you survive this, that would be the happiest ending I could imagine for our family.

*

Dear Dad,

Someone in this waiting room is clipping his nails. Even without seeing the culprit, though I’m pretty sure it’s the man who’s visited the men’s room three times in the last two hours, I know the sound; I heard it often while riding the subways to and from high school. It didn’t bother me much on the subways: urine-scented and scuffed, what was more trash? But here, in this scrupulous place, where prophylaxis and sanitation are imperative for operation, nail trimmings mashed into threadbare carpets are a powerful reminder of life’s transience. We are water, bone, and much-too-fragile skin.

*

Dear Dad,

Though ambulances, fire trucks, and red helicopters shine as symbols of medical triumph in the modern age, they make me feel terribly sad. When I see one, I know that someone’s life has changed, and probably not for the better. Case in point, Mom + ambulance = devastating. You + ambulance = ? From now on, I will say a prayer every time a red helicopter crosses the sky.

*

Dear Dad,

You would understand better than anyone why I’m writing in this depressing waiting room in the long hours that stretch through the night. You would understand why, post-op in the ICU, I typed transcripts of what the doctors told me:

“His surgery was successful.” = Surgeons worked all night to fix his ruptured artery.

“We’re working to stabilize his blood pressure.” = We didn’t have time after his lengthy operation to clean the blood pooled on his mattress or the iodine staining his feet, but all those tubes you see are pushing medication into him to try to make him better.

“We’ll know much more when we can take a CT scan.” = Between you and me, the prognosis is not good.

*

Dear Dad,

You and mom were never meant to endure together in life, but I offered the universe a grim smile when I visited you in the ICU, because the scene before me was a mirror to mom’s. You both suffered suddenly and with enormous momentum: genetics responsible for one, blunt force for the other; you both spent hours in surgery, urged blindly on by your children in an effort to preserve your lives; your bodies both expired in sterile medical quarters, at your children’s behest, when artificial assistance failed to sustain you. I said goodbye to you both in the same way: sobbing, my head pressed against your hearts, muttering promises to bodies that in no way resembled the people you were.

*

Dear Universe,

Please tell me that your plans will not wrench me from this world the way you have claimed both of my parents.

*

Dear Dad,

You understood me better than anyone else has ever understood me. I felt at home in the amicable silences and exchanges between us. We’re peddlers of words, and it was always such a relief to rest in your company, shooing off propriety in favor of candor. Did I ever tell you that I made friends in college because of your reputation as a teacher? Did I ever mention how people of a certain mindset instantly warmed to me when they learned you created me? I never questioned it. My first instinct was always: “You love my dad, so you must be pretty okay.”

*

Dear Dad,

I promise to never again liken anything to having a heart attack or a stroke, other than an actual heart attack or stroke. I promise to start taking low dose aspirin once a day, exercise and meditate more, and resume my yoga practice. I promise to notice more in the world around me, and to be an active participant in helping others succeed, the way you have. I will give thanks as often as I can. I will find light in every situation. I promise to be unapologetically irreverent and an ambassador for mischief. I will question everything and refuse to settle for less than the truth. I will fully explore the path of self-inquiry. I will not let your legacy in this world die with you.

In love, sadness, and regret,

Julia

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

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WIP

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Finding inspiration in the La Sals and the red rock faces that surrounded us.

Work in Progress (WIP) is an accounting term that represents the value of the components of a product or idea in mid-production, items and materials not quite finished but necessary for a product’s completion. In the construction of a home, for example, WIP accounts for the inventory of nails, screws, hinges, drywall, and lumber that eventually become finished rooms. In writing, drafts are the WIP that wait in ‘inventory’ for their time to galvanize into completed essays.

At the end of April, I had four WIP pieces saved on my desktop. I also had had enough with my glitch-ridden computer, which had been operating strangely for some time. I took my laptop to be repaired, hastily transferring my files to a USB drive in the dark hours before my children awoke for school. A technician removed and reinstalled the operating system, thus restoring efficiency to my writing tool of choice. However, when I returned home, I realized that I hadn’t copied the WIP documents. Pre-dawn, pre-caffeine, my mouse bounced between two windows and highlighted the wrong files to transfer. My WIP essays were gone. I stared at my desktop and tried not to cry.

I tell my middle school students that words are just words: they only have the power that we give to them. Following Faulkner, I advise students that they must never hesitate to “kill their darlings,” and should look at their writing instead as a process toward reaching even greater literary heights. Revise, revise, revise! Don’t fall so in love with your words that you lose the ability to write harder, better! Yet, confronted with a loss of my own short-sighted creation – so many hours of drafting and research – what I would have given to see my precious darlings again.

A long-awaited trip to the outskirts of Moab, Utah, with three peers and 21 students wrenched me from the scene of devastation. We could not bring technology with us. It felt almost like a relief to put my computer out of mind for a few days, and focus instead on being a participant rather than an observer.

For the next few days, our group slept in tipis. We hiked, read, sloshed, played, and explored. Four sopping, scrambling teenagers fished me out of class three waves when our raft entirely and epically wiped out. I began to recover small bits of the ideas I’d lost and imagine new ones. The red rocks that surrounded us advised me to be strong. Coyotes yipped nightly salutations, while, by day, lizards suggested idyllic boulders on which to lounge. I wiggled my toes in the ruddy clay creek and the wind roared its approval. Cottonwoods applauded as I played in the sand. The desert revealed a much larger work in progress.

I came home to a blank desktop, opened a new document, and started to write.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Noodle Soup

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The patient insists that she feels well enough to go to school. She’s dressed in coordinating purple hues, combed her hair, and brushed her teeth. She finishes all of her cereal – an uncharacteristic act of dedication to the cause of attendance. She refuses medication. The doctor, pleasantly surprised, puts away the nuclear orange tincture of ibuprofen, and transitions to her duties as chauffeur. Doctor-chauffeur starts the car, and returns to find the patient huddled over the toilet, clutching her abdomen, tears streaming from glassy, red eyes. The patient cannot go to school. The patient cries more.

My knowledge as primary-physician-by-proxy quickly exhausts itself. An actual physician swabs Rory’s throat and rules out strep, then mono. Rory’s diagnosis eludes. The doctor prescribes medicine, advises apple juice, and hands Rory a purple balloon and a coupon for a free soft serve cone from the gas station. I feel discomfited that he’s determined roughly as much about Rory’s strange condition as I have. Rory and I stop for ice cream before coming home.

Rory requests noodle soup for lunch. We’ve shared many bowls of noodle soup between us, from ramen to canned to freshly made, spiked with lemon and sprinkled with bright green herbs. I happily oblige. We face each other at the table, slurping. Dark broth dots our chins.

“Remember when we used to eat noodles together after kindergarten?” I ask.

Rory nods, a noodle dangling halfway in its ascent. Color has returned to her freckled cheeks. She dispatches the noodle and grins. “Every Monday!”

Memories of those early-out Mondays resurface with warmth, followed by a pang. At the doctor’s office, we learned that Rory will surpass me in height in exactly eleven inches’ time. Too soon, there will be crushes and first loves, arguments and hurt feelings, pity jealousies and tears… so many first everythings. The future materializes like an unwelcome lunch guest. Nostalgia and dread intermingle in my bowl.

I remember how much I loved nursing Rory by lamplight, how she smelled like French bread and sunshine. I study the girl she’s become: her lovely golden-green eyes and flaxen eyelashes; her beautiful, forthcoming smile; her long fingers resting on the table. She is – and I hope always will be – my little girl, for the moment distracted from discomfort by a balloon and the curative power of noodle soup.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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Desert Dream

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The drive along Highway 89 from central Utah to Tucson, Arizona, takes about 11 hours, down a corridor between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, to the east of the Grand Canyon, and over the Glen Canyon Dam. It traverses breath-taking landscapes and is, on this March day, relatively low stress, owing to light traffic, good visibility, and ample passing lanes. My husband and I have picked up our children, Kai and Rory, early from school. We are teachers and we are on spring break. We drive.

*

On our first day in Tucson, we visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Kai and Rory quiz me as we drive there. “Is it a museum, Mom?” asks Kai.

I tell him that it is a museum… and it isn’t.

“What? I don’t get it,” says Rory from under the rim of a Hello Kitty fedora.

“You will,” I say. The Desert Museum is a vegetation-rich place where visitors roam maintained paths, spotting birds and animals, and pausing to admire strange and beautiful desert plants. It is a gateway for learning the language of and kindling a connection to a region that bursts with biodiversity, and the best way to understand it is by experiencing it.

We take the kids to the raptor free flight. Falcons, hawks, and owls soar by, inches from our heads. Kai and Rory snap photo after photo. (The museum is also a photographer’s paradise.) The kids rush to acquire a new vocabulary:

saguaro (sah-WAR-oh)

cholla (CHOY-ya)

ocotillo (oh-koh-TEE-yo)

palo verde (pal-oh VER-day)

Rory points to a bright fuchsia wall: bougainvillea. Kai crouches to smell delicate orange orbs that proliferate alongside the prickly pears: desert mallow. We hear a singular chirp, and, after a few moments of searching, find a dusty brown female cardinal in the underbrush. Kai spots an aloe stalk that stands taller than we do and says, “It’s like an alien!” Later, he discovers a cluster of spiny teddy bear cholla: “That looks like an army of renegade muppets from hell!” he shrieks, clearly impressed.

“This is not like the desert I imagined,” says Rory, whose entire stance transmits the sense of buoyancy I’ve felt since we crossed the state line. “I like it.”

I like it too. My husband and I attended graduate school in Tucson, and in those few years formed an abiding love for the desert. We worked our first adult jobs, purchased our first home, and had our first child. Kai is the reason we’ve come back to visit. I want him to know where the story of his life begins.

*

We can’t go home again, but we try anyway. We stand outside the condo where Kai spent his first months. We knock. The tenants have put up brown craft paper as curtains. A gray lizard scuttles by; its throat flares orange. No one answers the door. I photograph Kai, posing outside the front entryway, as he did ten years ago. Though we are disappointed, I can tell Kai’s mind is clicking Tucson into place.

*

In Sabino Canyon, we sway on a flat bench as an aged trolley, groaning and sputtering, carries us into the Santa Catalina mountains, where passengers dismount to explore trails. We begin the downward trek back to the visitor center: 3.7 miles in all. Kai and Rory don’t complain. Tall saguaros surround us. Palo verde trees and mesquites shade a lush carpet of yellow blooms. We hear Sabino Creek trickling by, and stop to cast off our shoes and splash in one of its cold, clear pools.

As I sprawl on a pale, smooth boulder, luxuriating in the rock’s radiant heat, I watch a group of girls playing on the rocks across the pool. They look about Kai’s age. One of the girls, wearing orange shorts and a white tank top, squeals when a male mallard with lustrous, inky plumage alights on the water’s surface. “A duck!” she yells, pointing for her friends. “Look, you guys, it’s a duck!”

She runs to grab a bag of potato chips, then hurries back, stretching over the water’s edge to offer the duck a chip. I call out for Kai and Rory, and splash! The girl’s fallen into the pool, neck deep, mouth in a shocked O. She brings herself to her feet. “That was fun!” she exclaims, and quickly amends herself. “That was awesome!” She dries off and returns to feed the duck the remainder of her chips. Her friends gather around her and giggle, while her mother warns: “Be careful, now!” Within minutes, she dubs herself Girl Who Swims With Ducks.

A second mallard joins the pool and partakes of chips, though they turn up their beaks at nacho-flavored corn chips. The ducks glide along. I leave the scene feeling delighted by a moment of wonder in the desert.

*

I’ve been an ‘other’ for most of my life: immigrant’s daughter, born abroad; minority of Ukrainian descent, presumed Jewish, growing up in the lowest socioeconomic bracket of Coney Island; only child with three half-siblings; non-Mormon working at coffee shop and attending college in predominantly Mormon community; married in grad school; liberal Yankee in a traditional southern family; employee of an international school in a rural setting; interloper in Mormon pioneer country. Even in the classroom, I adopt the role of ‘other’ to provide a more balanced perspective for my students.

In the desert, I am myself. The sand doesn’t differentiate my footsteps from anyone else’s. The saguaro does not hide its spines or conceal the holes burrowed by the creatures it houses. The desert feels as close to home as I can describe on a spiritual level.

*

At dinner on our last night, I order a piece of pie for the four of us to share. An elderly couple who’d been sitting at an adjacent booth joins us in line for payment. “I thought,” says the smiling man, “that I was the only crazy who did that!” He laughs. I laugh, because I have a fondness for forthcoming people.

His twinkly-eyed companion says: “Once, in Kansas, he ordered a piece of pie and eight forks. The waitress looked at us like we’d gone mad, but, really, all we needed was a little taste.”

“Just goes to show…” the man continues. “The more you travel, the more loonies you meet!” He slaps a hand against his thigh, chuckling. His face is ruddy and furrowed with wrinkles. I have the impression he’s lived through a great deal and come out on the optimistic side.

“It’s inevitable,” I add, grinning. I resist a strong urge to adopt them both.

*

Is a little taste enough? Three days in the desert is not enough to visit Bisbee, with its iodine-colored mining “lake” or the Inn at Castle Rock, which is a quirky and delightful experience onto itself. It is not enough to visit the artists of Tubac or drink margaritas across the Nogales border or admire the riotous splendor of Madera Canyon’s avian population. It is not enough time to properly explore the Rillito Wash—not east by the Jewish Community Center or west towards First Avenue—or to meet with old friends and co-workers. It is barely enough time for mimosas at the Blue Willow and eggs and gunpowder at the Cup. But sometimes a little taste is just enough to whet the appetite.

As we pack our bags to leave, Kai fiddles with his shoelaces and sighs. “I don’t want to leave, mom.”

I hug him and try not to cry. “Me neither. But it was a good trip, wasn’t it? Would you like to come back sometime?”

Kai’s smile answers for him.

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© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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The Winter Gods

Winter seems to have returned to central Utah. During several weeks of unseasonable warmth, grasses started to green and tulips threatened to unfurl from the dry soil. Tiny buds sprouted on the Chinese elms outside the house. We wore short sleeves and flip-flops, dabbing sweat from our brows. One exasperated friend took down all of her winter decorations, grumbling, “We haven’t even had the chance to make snow angels this year!”

I read updates from Boston, New York, and Chicago, and I cringed, not daring to draw attention to our weather situation while friends back East cursed the onslaught of yet another snowstorm. Locally, we scratched our heads and said things like, “Well, we can’t complain about this! and “This is incredible! It’s not January, it’s April!” But also: “What the hell is going on?” and “This summer will be awful!” Snow enthusiasts, lovers of nature, gardeners, and farmers alike implored the meteorological gods to return the snow to us. And, finally, last week, they did.

For me, the “heat wave” highlighted our dependence on the weather, the intricate web of causality that affects us where we live. Little or no snow in the high desert transforms the mountains into giant tinderboxes, acres and acres of trees ready to catch fire. Lack of snowmelt threatens the water supply, which impacts those who depend on water to grow their crops as well as those of us who don’t. No water means fewer foods to eat. The town grocery store posted a sign warning customers that, due to weather circumstances throughout the country, certain produce items may be intermittently available, if at all, which is of grave concern since my diet consists mainly of things that grow in the earth. We may have enjoyed a reprieve from the cold, but at what cost?

I worry when my region experiences summer in January and icy hailstorms in July. It distresses me when weather abandons seasonality and instead becomes a series of events and vortices. Shouldn’t changes in the atmosphere – isolated incidents, established patterns, and troublesome anomalies – warrant more consideration than just “small talk”? Every day I watch the sky in humble estimation of the greater forces in control.

On Monday, the winter gods rewarded our pleas with a dusting of light snow: just enough to sprinkle our shoulders as it melted from the trees; just enough to mute the ubiquitous brown sagebrush. We awoke the following day to a world in white. I think – I hope – that higher slopes are receiving even more snow. For this bounty, we bow our heads in gratitude and beg, “Please send more!”

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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Ash

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“Where does the history go between two people when one of them dies?  All that landscape is lost.  And for a long time after the person you loved is gone you want to tell their story, so the story you’ve had together isn’t lost.  If it’s an ordinary story, one by one the people you try to tell it to stop listening.”  – Sharon White, Field Notes

In February 2010, a snowplow struck my mother in the head as she crossed a busy Manhattan intersection.  She laid unconscious at the Bellevue SICU after undergoing surgery to relieve the pressure in her hemorrhaging brain. On the morning before Valentine’s Day, I left my husband and children in Utah and flew to New York City to help my sister complete the inevitable tasks of impending death.

By Ash Wednesday, four days later, I felt desperate to leave.  I navigated the city streets – a mindless cipher, tapping an internal compass to reach my best friend. I got lost on the walk to Grand Central, though I’d walked there countless times before.  The churches propped open their doors. I kept passing people with telltale smudges on their foreheads.  A man tried to speak with me, took a single look at my face, and turned on his heels, hurrying away, plainly discomfited by what he saw.  I eventually made my way to Grand Central, and rode the train to Ossining with the opiate of angry buzzing in my ears.  What should have been a happy reunion with a dear friend was marred by intervals of despondency, numbness, disorientation, and tears.

There were long hours in the hospital: before the staff removed her ventilator, a process which required written and verbal consent, as well as consultation with a crisis counselor; when they dosed her with morphine to reduce her tremors; the wrenching anticipation of when it was going to happen – when her body would heed her brain and finally cease to function.  It took six days.  Then three more until my sister and I secured a funeral.  So much waiting for a body vacated by its soul.

My mother wore a St. Christopher pendant nearly every day for as long as I can remember, a simple golden disk with a picture of a man carrying a child on his back.  The pendant reads: Saint Christopher – Protect Us.  She wasn’t wearing the pendant the day she died.

I harbor this irrational fear that something will take me away as swiftly as my mother was taken from me.  My husband and I never told the kids what happened to mom; we just stopped mentioning her.  If something happened to me, what would become of my children? How would they remember me?  In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “But the feeling I could not purge from my soul was that without a mother, one no longer has the luxury of being a child.”  Now that I have been both a daughter and a mother, I see the terrible incongruity of loss.  A parent ought never to experience the grief of burying one’s own child.  But to imagine leaving a void in the lives of your children is pretty awful too.

How I begrudged my mother for her secrets! Who does silence benefit?  Certainly not the person who carries her secrets like large pebbles sewn into the hem of her dress.  Not the people who, by dint of circumstance, were present when the event occurred and who must knowingly, through fear or complicity, share the burden of another’s silence.  Mom never understood that I write to free myself from the weight of too many stones.  The irony is that mom wrote to cast away her pebbles too: she made monthly journal entries after she arrived in the States, testing out her English and unburdening her soul.  She just never shared her writing with anyone.

From her journal: “I only want to ask: Dear God, where am I?  And where are you?”

After she died, I started walking away from things, shedding parts of me: a sliver of soul here, steady streams of tears there, raw whispers into the darkness.  I realized how much of myself I’d cloistered away, afraid to reveal who I really am for the sake of protecting mom.  What about protecting what I valued in myself?  What about remembering what I needed to keep living?

A friend sent me a copy of Field Notes after mom died.  The first half – the crushing recollection of a young writer’s grief upon losing her husband to cancer – I liked.  The latter half I interpreted as a quasi-happy ending, and, though I once considered myself a hopeless happy ending person, I no longer am.

When I was in high school, I elected to move in with my dad for the fall semester of sophomore year.  It was a rash decision based on my unrelenting desire to flee Coney Island.  I was tired of being taunted and afraid; I was tired of being leered at by the men who owned the local supermarket, Key Foods, and by random strangers on the subway. The counselor at my new school suggested that a school-sponsored trip to Escalante with a group of my peers might help ease the transition from New York to Utah.

Our group spent several days hiking through Escalante on a ‘survival’ trip.  I recall Jolly Rancher candies, nuts and seeds, and Tang, punctuated by the unspeakable beauty of rocks and the desert, and, for an unaccustomed city girl, grueling hikes.  I did not yet understand the school counselor’s goal: take a youth at risk (of what, I don’t know, but my life was not on an even keel), put her in one of Utah’s national treasures, and hope something important ignites.

The biggest challenge of the trip was the solo night.  Our guides deposited us along stretches of a riverbed, placing us a significant distance – and on opposite sides of the river – from one another.  We were to spend the night alone, using common sense and newly learned skills to set up camp, start a fire, and feed ourselves.  They placed me in a cave under an immense rock face.  I wasn’t prepared, couldn’t start a fire.  I felt terrified as night fell.  I remember sitting up in my sleeping bag, shaking.  And suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  There had been no footsteps, and I didn’t hear sloshing in the river either before the sensation or a few moments later when the sensation went away.  But the calmness that washed over me was unmistakable, as palpable as the river and the sand I sat upon.  Something ignited.

In the morning, we ate pancakes cooked on the ashes of a fire.  Ashcakes.  They were delicious.

I returned to my mother in New York in January the next year, bringing with me a newfound belief in angels – of a sort – or at least energies, both positive and negative.  After mom died, I kept waiting for a sign to point me back to that girl who believed in angels.  There were no signs, only ashes.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2010 – 2015

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Dining Hall Confidential

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The early morning scene at the student canteen.

I pile my plate with fresh fruit, and consider what to add. Some toast, some yogurt? An egg or two, fried to luscious, runny order? Cheesy grits sprinkled with crushed bacon and sassed with Cholula? Breakfast in the dining hall rarely disappoints.

Lunch and dinner provide further choices. With a full salad bar, a gluten-free station, a noodle station, two bain-maries of soup, two stations for “traditional” entrees, and a grill-master who makes breakfast omelets to order and fires quick proteins for lunch, any given meal can be customized to one’s appetite. The Executive Chef and his staff prepare upwards of a thousand servings every day that school is in session; and, since meals are included in a teacher’s salary, I partake.

To many, the dining hall represents a near-Utopian bounty, a culinary failsafe for the tired and overworked. Visitors often compliment the quality and variety of foods offered. My dad, whose travels bring him through town on a semi-regular basis, coordinates his arrival specifically for the weekend brunch. (In his teens, he attended boarding school in Africa and marvels that our school kitchen keeps weevils out of its oatmeal.)

The dining hall also provides a rich feast for a writer whose primary passion revolves around the pleasures of the plate. It presents three opportunities a day to connect with others and discover discrete food preferences, which I scribble onto mental notes for later rumination. Its communal setting encourages food voyeurism. One colleague, I’ve noticed, prefers his sandwiches piled thick with vegetables; another brings four bowls of cereal to the table at once, then proceeds to methodically eat the contents of each. My girlfriends try to include a salad at lunch, though whether these salads excite us is frequently left to speculation. Some colleagues are dessert-hoarders, squirreling sweets before they disappear in the dinner rush; others return for seconds by habit, rather than necessity. The dining hall is, in short, a food writer’s wet dream.

However, to quote a former professor, after ecstasy comes the laundry. On certain days, addled by grading or the disappointment of a less-than-stellar class, my lunch consists of French fries, brown gravy, and chocolate milk. Or heaping bowls of clam chowder, chased by sugary mint tea. Or rosemary flank steak and Gorgonzola mashed potatoes. I don’t need ingredient labels to tell me the innate truth. Boarding school veterans know that plentiful foods offer plentiful dietary missteps. The pounds amass where they may.

By the time I’ve eaten breakfast and lunch at the dining hall, it’s the last place I want to return for supper. I shoo away my husband and children – Off to the dining hall and don’t come back until you’re full! – and willingly squander the dinner-portion of my salary to stay home and correct the caloric choices I’ve made earlier in the day. My dilemma is uniquely boarding school-centric and indisputably first world-privileged.

What a situation to take for granted! I start to miss the dining hall as soon as school lets out for break: a week at Thanksgiving, two weeks in the spring, three weeks mid-winter, and the staggeringly long summer. (To clarify, when school is in session, the faculty is on-call 24/7, because our students are our neighbors for the entire academic year. I’m not complaining about the duration of much-needed breaks, only the rattle of the dining hall’s locked doors.) Boarding school life has effectively eroded my culinary stamina: I have to cook for my family? Three times a day? And I love to cook!

Each post-break brunch is a joyous reunion, an affirmation of the power of sharing meals. Like teenagers, colleagues who have become friends cluster around their preferred tables, giggling and exchanging stories that intervened in our absences from one another. Our conversations range wildly and are, to me, resplendent in their wacky, amusing transitions and subject matter. This is, perhaps, the heart of why school breaks feel so hollow. In the dining hall, the food is plentiful and delicious, but it’s the company that ultimately makes the meal.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Starter Pack

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New life comes to friends around me. In the last month, I’ve congratulated parents-to-be and anticipated the purchase of adorable children’s clothing and, particularly, children’s books: Knuffle Bunny; Where The Wild Things Are; To Market, To Market; Love You Forever; A Sick Day for Amos McGee… I could, I think, recite these books by heart. My spirit surges with joy for my friends, now in the place in which I found myself ten (almost eleven) years ago. Yet their exuberance, this newness, evokes conflicting emotions. I feel a bit like a member of the Senate of Established Parents: What advice should I share? How honest is too honest? How much do I even remember? The resulting list comes from a late-night gathering of “Senators” who wish we’d known then what we know now.

Just Sign Here… And Here… And Here… And….

In my limited experience, it was much easier to contribute another human being to the gene pool than it was to obtain a driver’s license. (Friends who went through hell to conceive understandably disagree.) Most legal procedures require tests, forms, money, and unflattering photographs prior to initiation. When, for example, a person invests in something important, like a new appliance or car, the purchase usually includes an operation manual. With pregnancy, it’s Have Fertilized Egg, Will Travel. The authorized paperwork occurs later. Parenthood is absurd in that we enter it completely untrained and ill equipped.

Here’s Your Beautiful, Darling Miracle… Good Luck With That.

I attended the prenatal breastfeeding class that the hospital offered. I have the certificate and the detailed notes to prove it. Breastfeeding is lauded as the most natural and beneficial way to feed your child. Doing so seemed like such a no-brainer. And yet, one week into Kai’s early life, sleepless and exhausted from feeding him 10-12 times a day, my nipples sore and bleeding (apologies for the mental image), nothing I learned in the class applied to feeding the wailing child in my lap. Dear Parents, don’t be a stubborn wretch like me. Don’t wait until it’s too late and the nurse seated across from you says something hurtful, like, “You’ve been doing it all wrong” or “What in God’s name took you so long to come in?” If you plan to breastfeed, schedule a consultation with a Lactation Specialist as soon as your baby is born.

On Lobotomies

Maybe you’re the type of person who listens to classical music in your down time. If you are, please skip this section. If you aren’t, RUN – do not walk! – as fast as you can from those cutesy collections of baby composers. Run to save the last remnant of your adult sanity. Run to save yourself. It’s fine to stay away. I raised my children on Billy Idol and the entire 80s oeuvre, Madonna, Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and Chevelle. Kai and Rory both love music today; they adore Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, singing, and wild dance rumpuses. The mathematic, mind-enhancing properties attributed to rhythm and meter prevailed. And I spared myself a lobotomy.

Sexy Time

For a while, there might not be any. That’s okay, because:

  1. Parenthood is sexy and empowering.
  2. You start to notice sexy new habits with your partner, like how he wakes up to feed the baby in the middle of the night or the way she consistently slam-dunks dirty diapers.
  3. Um, maybe sexy time takes a brief hiatus. It’s still okay.

Disclaimer: I, Julia Moris-Hartley, do solemnly swear that I never use the term “sexy time” in real life.

Keep Calm and Parent On

Millennia of procreative pursuits have shown that humans are fairly resilient. We withstand drought, plight, famine, mass migration, war, pillaging, diabolical dictators, journey by chuck wagon, scurvy, stomach flu, diaper rash, and plagues of Biblical proportion. Your little one is a testament of endurance. S/he will not break.

Time to Make The Donuts

Heretical and methodical as I may sound to the feed-on-demand faction, putting your baby on a reliable feeding schedule makes you both happier. Babies develop the understanding that life follows a pattern: wake up, eat, play, snuggle, rest, repeat. The number of daily feeding cycles decreases as your child grows. Your baby starts to sleep for longer stretches. You feel almost alive again. If you choose to adopt a schedule and one morning find – miracle of miracles! –your baby sleeping in, make yourself a coffee and enjoy every sip. No need to wake your child up if he/she sleeps past feeding time. Babies need sleep.

Peas Before Pineapples

When baby graduates to solid foods, members of the Parenting Committee recommend introducing vegetables and savory foods well before sweet ones. The rationale: it’s much easier to cultivate an appreciation for pureed beans before baby knows that applesauce might be an alternative.

Haters Gonna Hate

You are not a bad person if the only baby you like is your own. Being the epic, unique creation of your union with your partner, your baby is obviously superior in every way. You will love your child so much that it physically hurts. Show baby some affection by cuddling often. Kiss your little one so much s/he smells like you. Try not to be offended if other mortals fail to celebrate baby’s perfection, 100 percent of the time.

The Take-Away

Most of all, trust that the Maternal Order of Parenthood makes converts of everyone – once you see your baby’s face, that’s it. You’re imprinted. You love the “pilgrim soul” in your child forever. And one day, too soon, memories of the hurdles you faced will dim, perhaps prompting you to start again. Savor every precious minute.

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A special note of thanks to Senators English, Austin, Roth, and Quackenbush, and Honorary Speakers Brinkley and Ryckman, for their participation in the January Symposium on Parenting.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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