Smokin’ in the Rain

I’m rushing through my last class of the week: 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. One of my students, a gifted writer who sits immediately adjacent to my desk says, “If I’m not done, can I stay late to work on this assignment?” Ordinarily, I might acquiesce and let her stay, for a few minutes at least; but today, by this time of day, I am ravenous, bordering on hangry. I also have a date in Salt Lake City with my neighbors, Kurt and Jonelle, good friends whose side business, Sorry Charlotte, I intend to write about. I apologize to my student’s waiting eyes: “Sorry, I have a smoking date.”

The classroom gets very quiet. I look up to a roomful of aghast thirteen-year-old faces. I’m not sure which part of my comment is more shocking – the implication of an affair or of smoking – so I rush to clarify.

“Smoking meat. With friends. At a competition in Salt Lake City… You know: bar-be-que.”*

*

When I first befriended Kurt and Jonelle several years ago, I came away with a sense of admiration. They had a poker room filled with neon signs, two ancient outhouses in the backyard, and a smoker that Kurt had repurposed from an old refrigerator. He is a born tinkerer. I’ve since come to recognize his abiding passion for neon and for smoking. Kurt often supplies wings, ribs, chicken, or pulled pork for social gatherings. As a neighbor, I am frequently assailed by the mouthwatering aromas of his practice pit runs, wafting on the eastern wind towards my front door.

For this competition, he replaced the refrigerator with an uninterruptable power source, converted from its first iteration as a back-up power supply in the basement of a school. He also brought two offset smokers for nighttime smoking and a great deal of apple wood, sourced from his native Sanpete County. (Offset smokers burn wood in a side compartment, letting smoke waft into a main compartment, where the meat cooks.)

*

Jonelle and I pull into the Sam’s Club parking lot at 4 o’clock. Kurt’s crew arrived earlier and has set up the trailer, smokers, and wood in the southeast corner of the lot. They attend the chefs’ pre-competition meeting. This competition is one of many Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) regional events in its 2017 National Pro Barbeque Tour.

Kansas City comprises one of many styles of smoking meat (other styles include Texas, Memphis, and North and South Carolina). KC-style is meat-centric, owing to its historical meat-packing roots. (Click here for a style breakdown.) Each style has devotees who swear that their style is superior.

*

Sorry Charlotte has been competing for three years. They finished their first competition in last place, but scored second in pork at the Mark Miller Subaru Spring Fling earlier this year and tenth place in ribs at last fall’s Wild West BBQ Shootout in Wendover – confidence bumps that propelled them into this KCBS challenge. All of the team members have day jobs: Kurt is an electrician by trade; Kevin, a long-time veteran in the food service industry; Luke teaches history; and Brad works in money lending. Many of their competitors have more experience and more time to practice the craft of smoking and tweaking recipes; some operate professional barbeque establishments. In light of their recent placements, it’s fair to surmise that Sorry Charlotte has the drive and potential to seriously contend with their competitors. (Although, I should add that all participants share an air of camaraderie, greeting and encouraging each other, and even offering samples of their finished products. The atmosphere in general is genial and sportsmanlike.)

In addition to the wittiest name on the competition roster, Sorry Charlotte has heart and is a labor of love among its members. Any casual observer watching the team analyze their efforts can see their sharp focus. They huddle closely and confer in quiet tones, tasting as they go: “We did that last time,” says Kurt of the pork. “I think it’s good.” Kevin nods in agreement.

As the story goes: that’s some pig.

The team will compete in all four categories: chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket, which is the most difficult to perfect. “It’s a tough hunk of meat,” says Kurt, holding up a piece of his own brisket, which is charred all around and ringed with thick pink smoke. “You’re trying to get it tender and easy to pull apart.” Challenge notwithstanding, the team seems pleased with their burnt ends.

Sorry Charlotte wants to do well, of course, but they also want to make scrumptious barbeque. Though this is my first time meeting some of the team, who warmly welcome me to share the close quarters of the trailer, I am equally impressed by their own respective fervors for the art of smoking delicious meat.

*

Jonelle and I pull up to the trailer around 9:30 on Saturday morning, after a luxurious and restful night in a downtown hotel. Rain spatters the asphalt. We find the group gathered inside and offer them drugstore ponchos, which, we realize with a pang, we forgot to give them the night before. Kurt steps outside to check the smokers, a task he and the team have repeated throughout the night. I ask him how he’s holding up. “I’m tired,” he says, smiling, but raking his hand over bloodshot eyes. By my estimation, he’s been awake for over 30 hours. He pretends to cry, but quickly stops and gives me a stern look. “There’s no crying in barbeque.”

This is Kurt, not crying.

Heavy storm winds blew through the area in every conflicting direction the night before. The dismal forecast announced snow and rain, overnight and well into the morning. We discover that weather conditions have brought the smokers’ temperature down. Kurt, in characteristic good nature, announces that the temperature’s “not ideal.” A quick brainstorm introduces the idea of setting up a canopy over the smokers. Temperatures recover within minutes. Kevin does a dance when Brad’s phone chimes.

When Kevin isn’t dancing, he’s smokin’ in the kitchen.

The group is cheerful inside the trailer, which has been retrofitted with a full prep table and second work sink. Space in the trailer is spare, so every clean counter is prime real estate, and, though Jonelle demures about being part of the team, she and Kevin’s wife, Mary, both work steadily behind the scenes to make sauces, clear spaces, and put away tools and ingredients to maximize the group’s efficiency, as do Luke and Brad. They think and operate as a true team.

Mid-morning, Kurt dresses the ribs on both sides with an inch-thick layer of brown sugar, margarine, honey, and onion powder, before wrapping the ribs in foil and returning them to finish off. Activity in the trailer increases proportionally to the proximity of noon, when judging begins. The team dips and sauces the chicken, analyzing the texture of the skin, which has been a challenge for them. (Recently, they’ve experimented with leaving half of the skins on and half off, and also with meat glue, to varying degrees of success.) Kevin’s prepped the meat boxes with beds of green leaf and romaine lettuce, on which the meats will rest, and the parsley that will garnish the finished entries. Appearance is an easy category in which to score, but even contest judges eat with their eyes first, so the team is careful to present their hard work in an appealing manner.

Kevin and Brad set up the chicken box.

These are Sorry Charlotte’s tensest moments – the half hour increments in which they cut the finished meat, analyze it for the choicest, most attractive bits, and arrange it in competition-approved clamshells to deliver to the judges. Brad and Kevin painstakingly adorn each completed dish with parsley, their eyes intent on the clock. Finished products must arrive to the judges on the minute. Even a second’s delay results in being disqualified, or DQ’d.

Once they’ve wiped the meat boxes clean of stray sauce, they secure the lids and walk the meat to the judges’ table. Their pace is stealthy and deliberate through 1:30 p.m., when they deliver their final dish – the brisket – and begin the process of cleaning up. The mood in the trailer snaps quickly back to joking and laughter.

Brad and Luke walk the meat to the judges.

*

Whether it’s the weather, the presence of a newbie interloper, or just bad luck, Sorry Charlotte doesn’t place as highly as they would like in the competition. Kurt and Jonelle return home late Saturday afternoon, a little sad, but with their thoughts on the next competition. “If you know Kurt,” says Jonelle, smiling mischievously, “by tomorrow, he’ll have a whole new game plan ready to go.” This, I think, is the biggest lesson about competitive barbeque: its participants are fierce, inspired, and unlikely to give up in the face of defeat or unremitting wind and rain. Determination and stamina hold them aloft through a long night of keeping the fires lit. They give the effort their very best. They understand, as Kurt aptly pointed out, there’s no crying in barbeque.

Many thanks to the Sorry Charlotte team for inspiring and fun insights into the world of competitive BBQ!

* Fellow spelling sticklers, take note: Meat heated by fire is commonly spelled ‘barbecue’ with a ‘c’. In this essay, I will be using a ‘q’, because the abbreviation is BBQ, not BBC.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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An Open Door

A couple weeks ago, my husband stopped me in the hallway at the school where we teach to tell me that he wasn’t receiving an employment contract for the upcoming academic year. By extension that meant I wouldn’t receive a contract either; we came to the school as a package deal and will leave as one, too. As a part-time Humanities faculty member, I was already keenly aware of my expendability. My husband’s news, however, came as a surprise. I felt like throwing up, but I did what an adult does: I pasted a smile on my face, returned to my class, and finished out the day’s work. Then I drank the weekend away.

Unemployment is a stress in itself, but, at a boarding school, it carries an additional wallop: eviction. We live in a faculty house and must vacate it, and our positions, by June 15. My family has four months to figure out many things: where we will work, where our children will attend school, where we are going to live, and what steps will cause the least damage to us as individuals and to our family unit.

My husband and I waited a week before telling the kids. Though it would have been easier to bear the heartache and spare them, we didn’t want to risk them hearing the news from one of the other faculty members or their children. (In this small community, news travels fast.) My son was four when we started working at the school, and my daughter stood as tall as my knees. This is the only home the kids have known. They cried, we cried, and we all went to bed with nine years of memories to either mourn or savor. When we woke up the following morning, we watched the sun rise into a crisp blue sky.

I will not miss this job. It has demanded my creativity and sapped my patience. It has killed my love for young adult literature. I may miss the unique relationships I’ve built with young learners, but I won’t miss the grading, the superfluous, unproductive faculty “workshops,” or the hours of planning. This job has always been a job, not a calling, and I accept its end for the possibilities and potential it unleashes.

I feel buoyant, despite the chaos. This experience is an open door. I intend to walk through it with my head held high.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Goodbye, Max

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On a sweltering day in August 2008, I rushed to finish the walls of my son’s new bedroom, wiping sweat from my forehead as often as I wiped up the paint drops that spattered on the groaning wooden floor. My family was under a lot of pressure: time (only a few days before the academic year – and our new, full-time jobs – began), space (moving from our 2,400 square foot “forever home” to a smaller, older, charming cottage), and patience (we’d already moved once a couple months before, across the country into a crappy condo with gravel and glass for a front yard). Our son, Kai, was four, and impish Rory barely 16 months old. I worked all morning and into the afternoon, watching the sun rise over the eastern horizon and crest at Kai’s southern window, its heat radiating through bent, aged panes. When I was done, I pulled up the painter’s tape, rinsed my brush, and started free-handing a mural that has brought many smiles to the family over the years: the boy king, Max, from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, swinging in the trees with one of his wild friends.

Where the Wild Things Are is a simple book with spare, economical prose and delightful illustrations. It holds a special spot in my heart, inspiring me to mischiefs “of one kind and another” and inciting countless playful rumpuses. For me, the story resonates with comfort: the knowledge that, no matter where you go or what you do, you’ll always have someone who loves you, waiting on the other side to see your face again. This has taken on deeper significance since I’ve lost both of my parents, but, at the time I painted the mural, I only meant for Kai to see, daily, a scene full of laughter and imagination.

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Together, Max and Kai have suffered colds and flus, infections, bruises, and scrapes. He’s watched Kai grow, physically and emotionally: comforting Kai through the hurt feelings of misunderstandings with friends and with us, and cheering for his academic and extracurricular victories. He silently endured the awful phase in which Kai heard only the negatives in what I said, and he taught me secret ways to navigate and strengthen a sensitive boy’s heart.

I recently asked Kai to clean his room, and in the process sort through his belongings to determine if anything could be given away. Kai rose to the task, making several trips to the trashcan with loaded arms, and forming a small mountain of toys to donate. “You’re giving away your turtle?” I asked, eyeing the life-size plush toy, a once-treasured birthday gift, at the top of the mound. He looked at the turtle and back at me, saying, “That’s okay, right?” I gulped and nodded under Max’s gaze. Max stared somberly at both of us, taking in the truth: Kai’s lanky legs, wild hair, and pre-teen boy funk; the comics strewn beneath the bed; his eagerness to shed childish attachments.

So, on an equally balmy day eight summers later, with time enough to recognize the gravity of farewell, Kai and I tape the perimeter of his room, haul out the primer, and say goodbye to Max, his beast friend, and the shared memories in between. We all know it’s time.

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Goodbye, Max. And thank you.

© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Emily Dickinson Lives Upstairs

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The sun shines on a clear, warm April afternoon. Eager to be outdoors, I bound the stairs two at a time and knock on Emily’s door, waving a fragrant lilac blossom in front of me like a parade flag. She answers: “I’m nobody, come in.” Not this again.

“Emily, it’s such a pretty day. Look at the lilacs! Let’s go out and take some pictures of flowers and bees…” When she doesn’t respond, I boldly add: “We might even find friends who like to write! Then there’d be more than two of–”

“Too public,” she snaps. “Do I look like a frog to you?”

I can’t be around her when she gets like this.

*

I often invite writers to stay with me because I need the literary companionship: someone who understands what it’s like to be driven, mad, from bed at 3 in the morning to capture the words that come unbidden into my head. I thought Emily would at least mitigate the loneliness of writing… maybe even provide a forum for feedback. But she prefers solitude, thrives on it. I’m lucky to connect with her once a week.

*

Emily Dickinson hates my nickname. “Jules,” she sneers. “Jewels are cheap and common commodities that symbolize society’s base, rampant materialism.” I stare at her, willing her to stop talking, but she rambles on. “Ju-li-a, however, has three pleasing syllables. Why would you settle for less than a three-syllable name?”

“Em…” I say.

Her sherry-colored eyes flash in tight fury. “Em? Em!” Her nostrils flare. In a dark corner of her room, I see her dun pet mouse, Grief, dive and cower under its bedding. “Em is the thirteenth letter of the English alphabet! My- Name- Is- Emily!”

She retreats, sullen, into the somber shadows of her room, shutting the door between us. Her bedsprings creak. I sigh. “And stop using alliteration so loosely,” she adds. “It isn’t dignified!”

*

Pro: I live with Emily Dickinson.

Con: I live with Emily Dickinson.

Pro: She is one of America’s finest poets.

Con: Her reputation (perhaps unfair) is that of an agoraphobic recluse.

Pro: We share a love of words, a healthy disdain of death, and a beloved friend named Susan.

Con: She’s kind of judgy.

*

A postal delivery person knocks at the front door. The dog leaps off the couch in an eruption of warning barks. I pull at the curtains to seal off any light from outside and sink lower into my chair. I don’t want to answer the door. I’ve just gotten home from work and I’m exhausted. He knocks again, followed by footsteps and the sound of the postal truck driving away.

A birdlike shadow hovers at the base of the stairwell. Emily smiles slyly at me. “In my day, we considered it rude to disregard a knock on one’s door!” Her mouse nuzzles her shoulder. “Isn’t it rude, little G?” she asks the mouse, stroking its chin. Emily turns softly in woolen stocking feet, ascending the stairs, a singsong lilt to her voice: “Julia’s asocial, Julia’s asocial…”

*

The other day, after an especially long hermetic gap, I stopped by Emily’s room. She didn’t answer. I opened the door and peered inside. The mouse was running laps on its wheel, but Emily was gone. I noticed several little notebooks, spilling out from underneath her bed, and picked one up out of curiosity. Flipping through, I recognized Emily’s slanted cursive, punctuated with long dashes and exclamation points: her poetry.

The floorboards groaned behind me. “Unhand my fascicles at once!” she shrieked. Her right eyelid twitched.

I dropped the booklet immediately: “Emily! Oh my gosh, I’m so–”

She surged towards me, slapping my arms. “Wretch! Thief! Out of my room this instant!”

“Em, let me help you with this. These books are flammable and they degrade easily… I can show you how–”

She threw a dictionary at me and slammed the door.

*

Wanting to make amends for the fascicle debacle, I register Emily for an email account and teach her how to use it. Amherstgossamer1830 learns to type with astounding speed and wastes no time in resuming her prolific correspondences, or “electronic missives” as she insists on calling them. Two hours later, she rushes into the living room, grinning, her cheeks flushed.

“Success?” I ask.

“I just penned 187 missives and 15 poems!” Breathless, she inquires: “How long will it take to receive returned correspondence? Six weeks? Eight?”

I shake my head. “It really depends on the person you’ve written to. Some people reply immediately, while others take a while. You should start receiving some responses in one or two days.”

Her jaw drops.

*

Sometimes visitors ask what it’s like to live with “that intense chick who wears white all the time.” I like it. She’s feisty and she botanizes like a boss. Above all, she encourages me to write and provides inspiration during the lulls.

*

“Why is my name on your computer?” asks Emily.

“Because it’s the 130th anniversary of your death.” She looks confused. “You’re famous, Em.”

“I am not,” she says, brushing at her dress as if it’s overrun with spiders. “And please stop calling me Em.

“A random search on your name yields over 18 million results! College students recite your poetry to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’! You have a museum!”

She sniffs. “Irrelevant. Fickle.” This information, apparently news to her, sends Emily out into her “laboratory”: the garden, where she examines spherical onion blossoms and measures the alkalinity of the soil. She returns several moments later, clutching a bundle of clover and mint.

“Sing the song for me,” she says.

“Are you sure? The lyrics are, um, a little questionable.”

She smiles for the first time all day. “I love questionable!”

© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

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A Real Job

Twice now, I have overheard my husband talking to his family and implying that I am not gainfully employed. “If I died tomorrow,” he says, “Jules would have to go and get a real job.” He’s right and he’s wrong. I do have a job; two, in fact. I am a mother and I teach middle school Humanities. The latter arrangement is purposefully part-time.

Several years ago, I was killing myself working full-time for a supervisor who delighted in disparaging me, taking credit for my writing, and making me cry. Other people were raising my children, witnessing their accomplishments and milestones while I reported daily for the abuse of my self-esteem. When my mother died unexpectedly in 2010, I experienced the type of enlightenment that comes from sudden shock: in my case, a crushing loss that gave me the clarity and strength I needed to change. I quit my job to become a freelancer and occasional tutor.

I have not regretted my choice to be present for my children or the pay cut that came with it. I drop the kids off at school each morning, and I greet them happily when they return home. I sign the permission slips; I help with the homework. So, yes, my husband is right: a significant downturn in life would force me to secure a more lucrative paycheck. But he’s wrong, too. Parenthood is my foremost imperative: a job I perform with diligence and pride.

*

My son, Kai, keeps a journal in his fifth grade class, and we trade off writing entries to one another every day after school. He writes about what he’s been learning and how he feels. The journal provides a complex synthesis of his innermost thoughts and perceptions. He tucks in stickers and inspirational quotes. I delight in giving him wacky responses, just to see if he notices. (He does.) I cherish these little conversations.

Third grade Kai.

Third grade Kai.

Kai is the reason I transitioned into teaching. I knew that I wanted to be involved in my children’s education. When I saw an opportunity four years ago, I applied for the job, eager to work with middle school minds and perform the unspoken requirements needed to work with my own kids in the future.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

*

At work, I channel the outspoken individuals who taught me in junior high: Mr. Homer, Mr. Goldberg, the Highlands, and Miss Becker, who revolutionized my ninth grade world by welcoming me into her AV girl squad. I remember small details about them: the way Mr. Homer adapted 60s song lyrics and serenaded his students; the talk Mr. Highland gave science class about “bowel massage.” Mr. Goldberg administered well-timed hugs, and to this day I envision Mrs. Highland’s prodigiously-lined eyes widening in admiration, chiffon sleeves billowing: “They called him Seurat, the Dot.”

I often wonder how those teachers did it. What compelled them to work with a bunch of foul-mouthed, loosely disciplined, pimply adolescents who weren’t even their own kin? And how did they contribute so much of their hearts without certainty that the investment of their time and energy would be returned or acknowledged? They provided light along the path to individuality.

*

Once, I asked my students why they thought I came to work every day. “You got the job because of your husband,” guessed one. “You really like working with kids,” said another. A third, barely looking up from his handheld technology, offered: “It’s your dream job!”

It isn’t, and I don’t always love it. Sometimes middle school students are obnoxious and gross. When one of my boys mutters something – usually a dirty joke or song lyric – that makes all the girls collectively gag and recoil, I roll my eyes and question if this is how the universe truly wants me to measure the worth of my days. Is this the work I’m supposed to do? Because I remember my teachers so fondly, and because my co-workers seem to thrive at what they do, I sometimes feel like the odd-person-out who views teaching as a job, rather than a passion.

*

Students in my classes probably won’t remember what a dependent clause is or why an Oxford comma makes a difference to the reader. They could not care less about plot lines, context, or hubris. They might remember that I treat fictional characters as if they are personal friends and stammer when I speak too fast. With any luck, they’ll intuit the broader lesson: that whether they’re creative or cranky, flippant or funny, they matter. They can live, talk, think, and act authentically, even if it takes them some time to put all those connections together. Those who have found their voices should help those who haven’t.

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*

At the end of the day, my reach in the classroom is finite and comprises only a fraction of potential influence. I strive to do well, though as summer break approaches and my students’ attention spans grow shorter, success is difficult to gauge. The work I do at home, however, offers immediate, enduring results. It is never far from my mind that the two students I care and advocate for most are the ones who share a roof with me.

Kai is one grade away from middle school. It’s greedy to covet his time in the classroom and at home, but there are so many books to read with him and so many writing prompts I’d love to learn his responses to. I have no doubt which job holds the greater value.

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© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

*****

With sincere gratitude to all of the teachers – in middle school, before and

after – who lit the way with love and support.

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Having the Dream

I recently visited Tanzania with a group of outspoken high school students and three travel-seasoned peers. I wanted to find my place; to follow the steps of my grandparents and parents to Tanzania, the central character of my family’s history. I took these notes at night, when only the Maasai guards who protected the camp would witness my mzungu headlamp-illuminated jet lag and delirium.

*          *          *

We spend our first week camping at Meserani Snake Park, about 15 miles west of Arusha. Meserani is alive with sound. Late summer thunderstorms modulate the volume and intensity. Motorists honk on the nearby highway; herds of goats, cows, and camels chatter and bleat; birds coo in the trees, underscored by the grating call of guinea fowl families that wander the campsite; insects titter and chirp. Only the staccato of sudden rain drowns the sounds outside. Cool, damp air filters through the rain flaps as raindrops bounce off the tent onto wet blades of grass. Bass thumps from a bar outside the park’s gates; the party there is still going strong at 4 a.m. At dawn, a muezzin calls worshippers to pray.

Meserani is, for someone like me, a trial by fire. I’m not accustomed to sleeping in tents for extended periods of time; I don’t find living out of a backpack glamorous, rustic, hip, or especially fun. But, despite frequent nightly thunderstorms, my tent remains dry. I have access to clean water and food that far exceeds what I anticipated. We tour schools and Maasai villages: enclaves, or kraals, of circular houses with thatched roofs and walls made of mud, ash, and dung. Our Maasai guides recycle tires for sandals – an ingenious all-terrain solution against the elements, especially the blistering heat, which sears the skin even in early morning hours. By day three at Meserani, I learn a root lesson: Acceptance is a friend.

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I also learn to look up, literally and metaphorically. When I feel alone, I shift my gaze and change my mood for the better. I become enchanted by the lovebirds at Meserani, who build their homes in the safety of wooden huts. I spend a disproportionate amount of time photographing them, and I am happy to do it. I discover hornbills and hanging nests. I don’t consider myself a textbook bird enthusiast, but it is not lost on me that the universe is sharing so many beautiful things that take flight.

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Our second week urges us out of the park. We pack our already-economical clothing and sundries into even more conservative daypacks, readying for three days of safari. We drive further inland to Mto Wa Mbu, an entry point to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. After a night’s rest at Twiga camp, we drive along the crater’s rim, overlooking what the Maasai termed the “big hole.”

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Lush rounded hills surround the crater – we could be driving through Idaho or Scotland, if not for the wandering tribes of giraffe, who feast from treetops off the sides of the road. I am not sure whether it is the giraffes or the elevation, but I feel buoyant.

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We descend the crater’s base into a valley floor that exposes miles of uninterrupted horizon. I did not expect the entrance to Serengeti National Park to be so vast: tall, yellowing grass rustles in every direction as far as the eye can see.

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We raise the top on the safari truck, giving us shade from the relentless sun and access to a welcome breeze. We drive towards our campsite at Seronera, roughly midway into the park. Zebras and wildebeests flank the road. Most of the noise vanishes; the only chatter here comes from the adolescent creatures inside the vehicle. Standing in sock feet on the truck’s upholstered seats, our bodies pliant and bouncing with the ruts in the road, we watch the late afternoon sun cast rosy golden hues in an all-too-short “magic hour” before setting into a long Equatorial night.

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What soggy tents? What annoying guinea fowl? The Serengeti frees the mind of complaint. We wake up to elephant families, wandering languidly through the dewy landscape, and lionesses fending off hyenas from a recent kill. A herd of purple-grey hippos capitalize on a recently rain-filled pond. Storks line treetops. In the green passageways of the Serengeti, I consider pleading with our guide to let me out of the truck. This is my stop.

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We return to the crater’s rim for the last night of safari. The amethyst sky explodes in milky, bright constellations. Several of us stop in our tracks on the dirt path to and from the restrooms, captive to the stars; our headlamps narrowly prevent our silhouettes from crashing in the dark. Baboons we cannot see scurry through the grass. Hyenas whoop and bark to one another. Lightning flashes in the distance. In the morning, fingers of fog mute the sunrise.

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From the rim’s edge, thousands of animals below appear as slow-moving dots. I hear my father’s voice. He viewed the crater as a “special place, part of [his] secret, psychic African heritage.” This trip connects me to my family’s history through shared images and remembered narratives. I follow paths they traveled long ago: to the Lion Men of Singida; to the water buffalo that nearly gored my grandfather and his friend, a hunting trip gone awry; to the dusty, wide open spaces that Dad likened to his later home on the Wasatch front. I revel in the exhilarating morning air, and send my thanks out with each new breath: asante, asante sana. As Hemingway wrote: “I could not believe we had suddenly come to any such wonderful country. It was a country to wake from, happy to have had the dream.”

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© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Safari Njema

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“In other words,” my aunt writes, “may the journey be safe, exciting and fulfilling.”

Heading into the wilds of Africa. Leaving technology behind. Helping others improve their lives with the addition of solar energy. Experiencing natural wonders of the world. Observing animals with time to admire and photograph them. Learning about other cultures, several of which were introduced to me (in text) by my father and grandfather. Building connections; gaining perspective; unearthing roots. Seeing where I was born.

Safari Njema! May it be a nice safari, indeed.

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You Are More Than Your Ponytail

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Dear Rory,

The other evening, we stood in the bathroom, brushing our teeth and getting ready for bed. I watched you pull your silken brown hair back into a ponytail and study yourself for several moments. Then you turned to me and asked if you looked good. I rushed to tell you that your ponytail was very becoming, but that you are always lovely no matter what hairstyles or clothes you wear. And I mean it. I can’t tell you the countless times I’ve glanced at you only to marvel at the way your hair falls across your face, or your long, flaxen eyelashes and freckled cheeks, or the graceful, delicate drape of your arms or legs. How many times have you floored me with your quick, irrepressible sense of humor; or your innate understanding of the things others show on the outside as well as the emotions they hold deep within?

I am here to remind you that you are so much more than your ponytail.

Our friends call you a changeling; I agree. You strike me as a gift from some other, better realm. I never anticipated having a daughter, let alone one as wholly wondrous as you. Which is why that moment in the bathroom broke my heart a little.

You’re almost nine and soon approaching your teens, when insecurities plague even the most confident. I see these uncertainties and trials unfold every day with the girls in my classes. My duty as your mother is to help you realize your best you, even during the years ahead when you might not believe that is possible to be amazing or even “good enough”.

My mother didn’t instruct me in my girlhood. She was born during a war, and fended for herself from the age of fourteen on. She either did not know or did not believe in talking about the female anatomy or issues that might affect me as a girl. She did not see the necessity of training bras or the practical use for tampons; she flew into a rage when she learned I’d visited a gynecologist at age sixteen. Sexuality was a non-existent issue, because “a good man would wait years” to be intimate with me. I spent so much time trying to navigate my life while absorbing these lessons that I missed a lot of opportunities to learn what it meant to be myself. I’m still filling in the gaps as a grown woman. I will not subject you to the same education. It is my duty to teach you the vocabulary of womanhood so that you are equipped with the knowledge to make your own informed decisions.

You will face adolescence with your eyes open to the fact that this life holds many excellent people and lots of pretty great people, but also, unfortunately, lots of jerks. People will say stupid, hurtful things. There will be trash talk, backlash, and gossip. Trusts and friendships may be ruined. I wish I could shield you from heartaches as you grow. But because I can’t, because there are so many variables in the intricacies of human existence, I must instill in you the wherewithal to identify and outwit the jerks of the world and the courage to silence the haters. You will trust your voice.

No matter what you wear or who you love or how you choose to express your ideas and opinions as you grow and change, you are an asset to this world, worthy of respect and kindness and consideration. Your wellbeing is crucially important. You are not that expensive pair of blue jeans, those gem-studded boots your friends are wearing, or this season’s hot nail color. You are not your ability to draw a picture or earn the next belt in Tae Kwon Do. You are not the likes on your social media feeds or the number of partners you attract. Validation like that is just another form of judgment. You are a complex composite of strengths, talents, and vulnerabilities far greater and more valuable than you can imagine. When you forget, I will remind you.

Love, Mom

© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley. All rights reserved.

 

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The Cost

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A long time ago in a land far away…

In a few weeks, I’ll be accompanying a school group on a community service trip to Tanzania, seeing my place of birth for the first time since my family left in 1978. Plans began months ago, but despite payments made, vaccinations received, and logistics discussed, I struggle to believe that this trip is really happening. I’d resigned myself long ago to never fully knowing where my story started.

I am terrified. I am ecstatic.

In addition to the suggested clothing and equipment, I’ll carry with me a host of different voices and stories: my mother’s, my father’s, and the grandparents who pledged the assurances and paid the fees necessary to relocate us to (and in) the United States. I’ve been studying the family documents in preparation. The more I learn, the more I see that circumstance and opportunity made my life possible, but not without cost.
*
Sometime between my birth and the spring of 1978, my mother and father separated – though I’d argue they were never truly together – and Mom sought political asylum in Austria. Her visa had expired, but she refused to return to her native Ukraine. In January 1978, my paternal grandparents, living out retirement in Boise, Idaho, signed an affidavit of support for Mom, my half-sister, and me through the U.S. Department of Justice, expressing their wish for us to have “a permanent home and [be] properly cared for.”

Shortly thereafter, my grandmother, Edith, wrote a beseeching letter to my mother, who faced a critical juncture. “It will not be easy tomorrow for any of us,” she wrote. “But we [Edith and Stan, my grandparents] dare to offer you what we can share because we know we both want to help you and are able to. And we are quite willing to work harder as long as we live to make this possible, and you will also know that we will work together to make a good life possible for all of us.” Though Mom rued her decision in subsequent years and journal entries, she accepted my grandparents’ offer and came to the States.
*
In all of the arrangements for this upcoming trip, I’m astounded by the credence of tangible things. It is one thing to think I might be going to Africa, and another to hold an actual, ticketed receipt; to have heard family legends versus piecing together, detail by detail, the histories written in my parents’ personal effects. I have liquidated my Vegas fund, my rainy day fund, and a good deal of non-earmarked savings to pay for the journey – tangible currency for tangible experience. Still, the prospect that I will stand on African soil, dwelling for two weeks in the landscape that so inspired my father and so changed the trajectory of my mother’s life, is almost too much to fathom.
*
In April 1978, Dad hand-wrote, and had notarized, his own terms for my financial providence: $150 per month in child support payments “until such time as Julia Moris attains the age of 18 years, or marries, or is adopted, or dies, or otherwise emancipates herself, whichever event shall occur first.” He stipulated ten points, all of which illustrate his determination to separate us from his ordinary life and everyday affairs. (I am glad that I read the document as an adult who enjoyed an excellent relationship with her father; it would have crushed me as a child.)

Money undermined my parents’ relationship, even after it “unraveled.” I represented a ledger to Mom and Dad. While on paper Mom’s figures appeared in black, she worked a string of low-paying part-time jobs to make ends meet. (Mom pridefully turned away assistance from the Moris family in instances that did not directly impact me – for better or for worse.) Dad’s column bled searing red: our connection a documented, illegitimate liability. Neither of my parents profited – at least financially – from my presence in their life.
*
I’ve always been aware of the economics of my worth: sublimating guilt over my mother receiving child support, though it never alleviated her daily worries; knowing implicitly to order off the budget menu, though the Moris family is, by disposition, generous to a fault. My mother fastidiously saved her small earnings and modeled frugality. Save. Invest. Take good care of your things. Don’t squander. Be humble. I read these lessons in years of furrowed brows and diverted glances. There were few lectures, but I learned.
*
My much-beloved grandmother distrusted Mom from the outset. “I would like to see Tina have security also, and feel warm and safe,” she wrote to Dad. “But I doubt very much that providing it for her will be of the best help. It can make a parasite out of her… To help her get to Dar – yes – and perhaps the first month of support there, but beyond that if she really tries she will be able to manage.” She warned Dad that sustained financial ties to Mom would “become an Albatross around [his] neck.” She was not wrong to express her concerns (although, again, these words are brutal on the page). Though she obviously experienced a change of heart after I was born, she realized, rightly, that my mother and I would by default be Dad’s albatross for the next 18 years, fiscal atonement for a doomed romantic misstep in Tanzania.

Mom’s six-year stint in Idaho incurred a bill for almost $5000 in foreign student tuition at Boise State University. To my father, Edith wrote: “We paid non-resident fees for her – but it was not too bad – $795 in fees, and we had her buy her own second hand books at $60 as she received $300 from World Church service to start life here, and altho [sic] it was to be shared with us, we told her she could have all for school.” My grandparents cared for me while Mom went to school and work. They invested their time and their hearts – an even greater debt to repay – in addition to the unanticipated costs of “adopting” their son’s unplanned second family. Money remained a frequent theme in the letters Edith wrote to my parents until her death in 1982.
*
There were many more bills and debts in intervening years, expenses that outlasted my 18th birthday: my airfare for every summer vacation spent with Dad’s side of the family; my first car, handed down from Grandpa when I started college; a considerable portion of my undergrad and graduate studies. I doubt my grandparents foresaw the extent or duration of their investment in my future, but they gave of themselves without falter, proving time and again their willingness to work for a good life for us, as Edith promised to Mom a lifetime ago. When it came to my wellbeing, my grandparents did not once remind me of the price of their love.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2016

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Curses and Choices

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Now that both my parents have passed on, I find myself drawn to the histories they left behind. I am learning that what I thought was my story represents a small part of a much bigger family narrative, which I am compelled to document in order to understand. I recently heard that I may have the opportunity to visit my place of birth for the first time this spring via a service trip through the school where I work. If there are connections to make, I must uncover them now and share my parents’ stories so that they do not die with me.

* * * * *

My mother defected from her native Ukraine to Uganda in 1971. She was 31. She and my sister, then almost four, moved in with my sister’s father, N. Together, the small common law family relocated to an outlying town near Arusha, Tanzania, in December of that year. While N (whom my mother refers to strictly by last name in her journals) began to carouse and spend increasingly more time away from home, my mother befriended the neighbors and sought solace from her loneliness among their company.

The friendship initially bolstered my mother’s spirits. She writes in her journal of joyful early encounters with her neighbors, a married couple also new to the area. But soon, there are hints of unwelcome advances that she cannot bring herself to elaborate upon even in her own writing. It was the wife, not the husband, who tried to seduce my mother: first with words (“You like your body, don’t you? I like mine too”); then with “no good pictures” and movies (margin notes, scribbled over and crossed through, say “porno”); finally, physically locking herself and my mother in the neighbors’ bedroom at night. To my mother, the daughter of an Eastern Orthodox upbringing, the insinuation of sexual impropriety, especially with someone of her own sex, must have scandalized her. “I must confess I never even thought about love [emphasis hers] with another woman. For me she was just a very good friend and I was very devoted to her and her husband as well.”

When my mother resisted the woman’s sexual overtures, the woman, whom I’ll call W, threatened her with dark magic (such as mind control and the ability to “spiritually perform abortion”). My mother notes a strange abdominal pain, cured by the recommended insertion of an egg-shaped sac filled with something like “decaying grass.” She confronts W, at the time her best friend, standing outside a bathroom doorway, manually rewinding a cassette tape backwards, as if, according to Mom, conducting some sort of psychological manipulation. My mother began to behave strangely in W’s company. “I did not give a thought that time, that it was actually somebody’s wish to make me a fool and crazy like in people’s eyes,” she writes. “I did not suspect that somebody was watching me and actually I was already possessed by that time.” Mom’s journals document mental ‘conversations’ with W, and dissociative lapses where she felt that someone was using her body and speaking through her. “I was not in my mind, was obeying them in everything like a small child, whatever they wanted me to eat or to drink.”

Mom later speculates that W drugged or hypnotized her, but, regardless, my mother fell into a cycle of self-fulfilling despair over life’s disappointments that would plague her until her death. “When she said, ‘If you don’t love me, you will be in trouble… and it might be for the rest of your life,’ she knew what she was talking about. And her promise became true.”

My mother left Africa convinced that she’d been cursed by her best friend and next door neighbor.

*

Misfortune followed when Mom met my father in 1975. They dated and moved in together after a brief courtship, and I was born soon after. Dad “became completely another man” before my arrival. “It was like a devil changed him completely.” In this part of Mom’s journal, W transforms into a witch, bent on keeping my mother miserable. “I had to lose not only Jon [my father], but my own motherland, my family and friends, and everything I’ve achieved in my life, just because of revenge of one crazy woman-witch… for her own skin and security she put me into this butchery… to lose everything, as she told me that I will.”

Mom walked out of the maternity home, a single woman with a howling, red-faced infant swaddled in wool and a sullen ten-year-old daughter whose father had forsaken her for a new family of his own.

*

Letters exchanged between my father and his parents reveal they were very unhappy with the choice, however temporary, he’d made in Mom. They looked at her and saw – not incorrectly – a deeply troubled woman. My grandmother especially disliked Mom. (She likened her to a parasite.) And yet my grandparents rallied to sponsor us all – my mother, my sister, and me – until we became American citizens, paying hefty application fees to international welfare organizations in the process of relocating us to the States. My father was, according to various letters and journal entries, hands-off in my early childhood; it was his parents who invested in our future, despite their disgrace over their son’s unwedded pursuits. They also cared for me while Mom worked and became my beloved surrogate parents.

Moving across the Atlantic to Boise, Idaho, mitigated Mom’s compulsion somewhat, though my mother continued to hear W’s voice in her head. At my mother’s first job in the States: “When I got my first salary, here [W] started to demand from me to buy gifts for her, it was like she was inside me, looking by my own eyes, watching me, knowing everything what I was doing, talking with me…” Mom held (and was soon fired from) a number of bank jobs in the Boise area, where we lived in my grandparents’ fourplex. (My mother bitterly notes that she had to pay rent to Dad’s family for this ‘privilege’.)

Several factors informed my mother’s experience as a single parent and immigrant. She did not drive, which, in 1980s Boise, was social suicide. (Mom writes how it embarrassed her to be seen walking everywhere.) She had a limited grasp of spoken English, despite a written aptitude. One can imagine there was not a huge community of Ukrainian immigrants to befriend. Nearing her 40s, she had never used a computer and often notes her frustration with learning new technologies. She also felt demeaned by her co-workers and struggled to conceal her emotions. Despite a laundry list of hurdles, she continued to attribute her experiences to W’s ‘control’. “My head was always spinning around like in… a magic hellish circle; I felt it every minute, something was holding me alone by myself, somebody did not want me to get friendly with people around… Sometimes I was even saying some things that I never wanted to say… it was like somebody talking by my mouth.”

*

My paternal grandparents lived and worked in East Africa for most of their adult lives, serving in various capacities for the Lutheran Mission. My grandfather, a practicing physician, documented in his memoirs his continued exasperation with the patients he encountered who believed, despite all appearances otherwise, that they’d been cursed. My dad and grandfather both address the prevalence of bewitching and magic – uchawi – they observed around them at the time. My grandparents did not believe in curses. They believed in God. So, naturally, when confronted with my mother’s conviction that a curse had ruined her life, they questioned the stability of Mom’s mental state.

They tried to help her anyway. They brought her to church services, where she received counsel and prayed for God’s mercy. In a letter from my grandfather: “She decided to go to communion on her own… in so doing she made a public confession of her faith and there was no lack of evidence that she received joy in this fellowship. It meant something special to her and it will bring continued release from her past burdens as she continues on.” By 1980, even my grandmother had softened a bit: “When one has been wounded many times by many different people the healing takes time, and patience, and she is one of these… After these months with us we have healed many smaller wounds, but the mind is still without peace… it needs to come soon, or her mind will crack.” I hope that eventually Mom saw my grandparents as benefactors, rather than participants in her affliction.

At times, my sister and I perpetuated the curse. “Last night was awful, my eyes never hurt more. I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t sleep till almost 5 a.m. I slept for a couple hours and at 7 Julia woke me up asking for breakfast.” (I was five.) Mom developed insomnia in Boise. It would allow her three to four hours of sleep per night for the remaining 32 years of her life, less still as my sister and I became adolescents and tested our own boundaries. Growing up, I remember thinking that adult-onset insomnia was Mom’s real curse, the actual reason she never felt right, though I never dared tell her that.

I cannot confirm or deny my mother’s beliefs beyond her written legacy. The perceived curse was simply part of who Mom was – the foundation of our story, a dark, lurid fixture in the imagination – as was the woman who issued it. It’s impossible to approximate the extent that this belief affected the choices Mom made or the interpretation of the consequences that followed them. The human mind is powerful. I know she believed the curse was real, and used it as a lens through which she construed all things. It is clear from my mother’s journals that she believed the curse would end with her; that she alone was chosen to suffer the sustained abuse of an aging woman halfway across the world. Whatever it was – curse, choice, or something complicated in-between – I hope that Mom is finally free from her torment.

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© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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