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.

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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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Friendsgiving

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Simple, fragrant place-setting: rosemary sprigs and fresh cranberries, strung with floral twine.

My husband and I moved to Utah in the summer of 2008. Eager to begin a new life out West and unfamiliar with the vacation realities of boarding school life, we arrived in early June, squeezing our belongings into a tiny duplex on Main Street. We knew no one. I can’t speak for my husband, who is an undiagnosed hermit, but as I sat amidst ceiling-high boxes and mismatched furniture in the stifling summer heat, I began to seriously doubt our decision. Then came a knock at the door. A school faculty member named Max stood at our threshold, smiling and welcoming us to town. He invited us to dinner at his house.

We quickly became friends with his family, whose children were close in age to ours and whose sensibilities and warmth won our hearts. They introduced us to several other faculty families. Our circle of friends grew. We hosted dinner parties; we enjoyed parties hosted by others; and, just like that, we weren’t lonely strangers anymore. We became part of a community that has supported us and nurtured us for the last seven years.

In our first year, I hosted an Orphans Thanksgiving for the faculty members who were unable to spend the holiday with their families. Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. I have so many blessings to be thankful for. It only seemed right to share the day with others. I cooked the turkeys, and guests each brought a side dish. Over time, the tradition transformed into a gathering of an ever-growing family of friends. The guest list changes, but the joyous heart of communion remains.

This year, we grilled New York strip steaks, marinated liberally in rosemary, garlic, and olive oil — a low-stress alternative to turkey that requires much less clean up. I also tried out a hasselback potato gratin from the New York Times (amazing!). Hosting Friendsgiving gives me the culinary freedom to experiment and enables guests to enjoy not one, but two days of revelry and gratitude.

As Denise Chavez writes: “We have so much to be thankful for: Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, tacos of all kinds, Pad Thai, sushi, chicken chow mein, pizza, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, mariachis, symphony orchestras, rock and roll, rap, funk, rhythm and blues, rancheras, boleros, soul music, day, night, rain, snow, blue skies, clouds, our mothers, our fathers, the many ancestors whose blood and pulse of life we carry within us.” For all of these blessings and more, thanks be.

*

Friendsgiving is fun. Here are some tips from a few years of experience.

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Kids’ tables: Craft paper table covers and buckets of crayons are great for little hands. Slightly older child guests appreciate being treated with a little more care. I don’t use my best china, but I put out nice plates and juice glasses.
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Make thrift shops and garage sales your friends. You can score a handful of silverware, dishes, or folding chairs and tables for relatively little money. My tablecloth is a bolt of fabric from a craft store.

 

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Flowers. Bunches of fresh herbs are lovely too.
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Usually, I put out white plates. I opted to use my grandmother’s fine china this year. Life is short.

 

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Parlor tricks: Write notes of thanks to each guest. Ask them to guess the card you chose for them based on the cover art.

 

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Put out several carafes of water for guests to drink throughout the meal. I set up a separate drink station with a range of cocktail and wine glasses, a bucket of ice, and extra bottle openers.

 

 

 

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Noshes are important, too: crackers, nuts, cheeses, and fruits give guests a distraction while you’re carving the turkey or sneaking a glass of wine.

 

 

 

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Reframing

The new academic year brought changes to my work schedule that put my mornings in a weird “hurry up and wait” limbo, whereby I pack lunch for my children and usher them to school, then have three long hours before entering the classroom to teach. More leisurely people than I might use that time to doze or catch up on world news with a coffee, but I am physically incapable of relaxing after I wake up. Once I’m on, I’m on until it’s time to be off. So, I decided to reframe this window of time by using it as an opportunity to rediscover the town I live in and remember why I am so fortunate to be here.

My goal: to log 25 miles per week, by whatever means necessary, documenting the beauty I see along the way. How many times have I been out on a run and encountered something remarkable, like a pair of soaring bald eagles or an egret’s long neck rising from a knee-high field of alfalfa? I’ve taken these pictures over the last month. These are the friends I most often see: mountains, fields, dusty roads, sheep, cows, peafowl, hawks, geese, farm kittens, and a guard dog named Bella. I hope you find them just as pretty as I do.

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Fall colors in the valley.

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Snow arrives in the hills.

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Bella, the guard dog, facilitator of farm kitten naps.

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First snow.

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Inspiration for the lesser-known David Bowie hit, “The Prettiest Cows.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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Mad Love

No pressure.

“Do you hate me forever or just for a little while?” I pose the question to my daughter, Rory, in earnest. She is fixated on a local organic food vendor, who advertises free kittens along the walk home from school. Rory stops at the shop every day, obsessed. She wants “brand new twin kittens,” despite bringing home her very own kitten, Ginger, a year ago.

Rory starts to argue her case, then pauses. She gazes up at me with brimming eyes. “I could never hate you.”

I shake my head and say, “Honey, it’s inevitable that you will hate me at times, but I can only hope it will be for small pockets and not forever.”

Rory sniffles against the back of her hand. She pushes honey-blonde hair away from her teary eyes and sighs. “No, mom,” she says. “I love you.”

*

The Girl Who Didn’t Particularly Envision Having Children has evolved impressively over the last decade. One day I was a numbers whiz at a state university, and the next found me covered in souring milk and a dusting of cornstarch. Every stage of parenting has been a coup: Kai feeding and going back to sleep in his tiny car seat each morning; the lump stage; the Darth Vader phase, each thick breath issuing from deep within; toddling! Such a visually satisfying verb.

Then came Rory, a gift of more delight. Kai’s social cognition blossomed at the boarding school where I work; Rory, born into the joyful chaos of communal educational coexistence, flourished with minimal encouragement. Kai learned to read, and could hardly be suppressed in his eagerness to learn more. He manifested sensitivity; his roots grew strong and resilient in the physical, sensory world. Rory assumed her place in somewhere in the atmosphere, her mind wrapped up in clouds, channeling her grace from solar flares and stars. In between days, they grew into little people of their own mettle.

I often reread the notes I scribbled into journals for their later years, remembering each step of their development. Each phase was my favorite phase, but this time, right now, is the best yet.

*

One morning not long ago, Kai, a habitual early riser, entered the kitchen, clutching the back of his neck and sobbing.

“It hurts, Mom!” he wailed. “Every time I move my head, it hurts!”

Kai never complains and he rarely cries. I calmed him down as much as I could, though my own thoughts raced. He suffered through a bowl of cereal, whimpering each time he moved his head. Rory pushed away her cereal bowl and looked at Kai, her brows knit.

I gaped in awe as Rory started to cry too.

*

It happened again a few days later. Rory fell off her bike, scraping a centimeter-wide patch of skin from her finger. She ran into the house, wailing, with Kai following closely behind. Kai stood in the bathroom doorway as we cleaned and treated the wound, his expression serious. Huge tears fell down Rory’s cheeks. She exhaled raggedly. When we were done, Kai patted Rory’s arm and said, “I’m sorry, Rory. I wish I could take this for you.”

*

The days are not all joy and wonder, but the proportion of joy largely outweighs the arguments and occasional hurt feelings between Kai and Rory. They empathize and laugh with one another, but are also remarkably adept at picking petty fights and pressing the “buttons” they know will aggravate the other. So I divide my time between them and measure my good fortune by moments.

The other day, Kai and I shopped for sunglasses. I tried on an oversized purple pair and waggled my eyes at him. “Yes?” I asked. He shrugged. I picked a different pair: “How about these?” He grunted a little. The third pair won. “Mom!” he said, grinning. “You look like a beach babe!”

Exploring the lighting section of a home improvement store, I ask Rory to pretend she’s building her own house. What lights would she choose? She points to the Tiffany-style pendants, the biggest chandeliers, the pinecone sconces, and a floor lamp that looks like a four-headed lily on acid. I watch her as she dashes among the aisles, her eyes fixed towards the ceiling. What a bright place her mind must be.

*

Over breakfast, Kai says, “I wish I had another blanket.” He is so matter of fact about it. The weather’s been getting colder, and I realize, with a pang, that he’s still sleeping in summer bedding. Though the seasonal clothing and bedding swap is one of my lesser-loved parental responsibilities, his bed receives flannel sheets and oversized comforters within minutes. For undemanding, sensitive, wonderful Kai – anything.

I’ve had girlfriends ask my opinion on having children, to which I reply that it is a deeply personal decision – not one for everyone – but add that it has been the most rewarding experience I could imagine. I did not anticipate the full force of this wild affliction called motherhood. I would do anything for my children. Just tell me where to set the moon.

*

My practical mind knows that more kittens will not complete our household in the way that Rory imagines, but my heart fights a strong desire to let her adopt one more cat. Kittens are gateway pets, and I must not acquiesce for fear of sending Rory entirely the wrong message about the economics of needs and wants.

This does not stop us from visiting the shop on a brisk Saturday morning. Four kittens mew in a wire crate on the front steps: a pair of larger white ones, and a tiny pair of grey-black tabbies with luminous sapphire eyes. Rory addresses them each by name. She eyes me as she wriggles her fingers through gaps in the crate. I envision Rory and the kittens frolicking in some magical, twilit meadow, enshrouded by rainbows and butterflies. Only a heartless monster could say no. “Let’s see if they’re still here next weekend,” I say, hurrying back to the car.

My resolve returns once I am freed from the influence of the kittens. I tell Rory as much when we get back home, and am relieved when she says she does not hate me. As she walks away, I marvel for the millionth time that this intelligent, hilarious, compassionate individual who stands almost as tall as I do started out in the universe as one microscopic egg and sperm. In this moment, I am proud and humbled and so very in love.

Ginger, the gateway kitten.

Ginger, the gateway kitten.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Unbecoming

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Dear Readers,

Four months ago, I received the news of my Dad’s aortic tear, which killed him within 24 hours. He left no will and no assigned executor, but, because I live in the same state as he did, it seemed most logical for me to offer to help make notifications and settle his affairs. There are so many things I wish I could tell you about what I have learned this summer – both about my dad and about myself – but each time I try to commit them to writing, I feel preachy and saccharin and wrong. I’m in the process of learning what it means to be an “adult surviving child.” Life is lonely without parents. I’m floundering, I guess, but surviving as best as I can. I just wanted to thank you for following this website. I really like this writing thing – I hope to get back to it soon.

In the meantime, call your parents!

Love, Julia

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Eat, Memory

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Thank you for the photo, Lori!

Last month, three girlfriends and I attended a dinner featuring dishes from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. The event, a labor of love co-hosted by Chef Shaun Heaslet of Harmons Bangerter Crossing Cooking School and Sheral Schowe of Wasatch Academy of Wine, paired five courses with five wines, each thoughtfully selected to highlight the terroir surrounding Keller’s renowned California restaurant.

At the dinner, I met a cowboy – not my first, but the most memorable thus far: a cattle rancher wearing a plaid shirt with pearly snap buttons, a worn brown leather belt, and faded Wranglers. He introduced himself as Spence and I told him my name in turn. He looked to be in his fifties, with tanned, wrinkled skin from years of working under the sun. We shook hands. It didn’t take long before he asked where I was from, to which I gave my usual response: “Everywhere.” His smile faltered, so I elaborated. “I grew up in Coney Island, but my dad and grandpa lived out West, so I spent most of my summers here… I’ve also lived in Arizona and Florida and…” Spence nodded, waited a beat, and said, “And that was what you hoped you wouldn’t have to tell me, right?”

*

Shortly before his death, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published his manifesto, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Brillat-Savarin’s essays and anecdotes explore taste and the senses, the elements of a proper culinary experience, and our responsibilities as diners. “The pleasures of the table are for every man,” he writes, “of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest.”

Every man and woman, I might add, with essays titled “Portrait of a Pretty Gourmand” (in “full-battle dress,” her eyes shining and gestures “full of grace”) and “Women Are Gourmandes.” I discovered long ago that I fall into his category of “predestined gourmand,” which is fortunate because he also classifies writers as those who benefit the most from good eating. My friends and I were there that night to eat well. It’s safe to say that we four lean toward indulging our sensual impulses, as was evidenced when we all fell wildly in lust with the evening’s tomato sorbet, and struggled bodily to refrain from licking our plates. Spence tried not to laugh.

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn't for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn’t for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

*

Spence charmed me by the first course. He turned to our group and asked, “Which one of you’s in charge here?” Casey raised two fingers and assumed the role of lead provocateur among the sixteen guests seated at the long, low-lit table. Spence did his best to keep pace, regaling us with decidedly non-PC jokes (about Mormons, minorities, and the blind, to name a few). His wife, Cindy, rolled her eyes; I suspect she’d heard the jokes a few times before, but the rest of us cackled. Casey tried valiantly to suppress repeated fits of giggles. By the third course, we were swapping pictures of the animals we love. He and Cindy showed us their pack of small dogs. “This one had one eye and was in bad shape when we got it,” he said, pointing to a brown toy poodle on his phone. “Rescue cost me $1200 bucks.” He grunted and mumbled, “Sweetest damn dog in the world.” Spence warned that he was hard of hearing, yet chuckled when we mimicked his “I can’t hear you” gestures. Cindy egged us on.

*

At the start of each course, Sheral provided her own stories and experiences with the wine she’d chosen, giving us a relatable sense of the geography and environment in which the grapes grow and are harvested, and sharing the provenance of the wines and winemakers themselves. We sniffed and swirled our glasses, pausing to observe the flavor of each wine and noting with pleasant shock and delight the changes evinced by our senses of smell and taste working in tandem.

Perhaps because we were so immersed in each sip, so intently focused on each sumptuous bite, I started to feel a little uneasy thinking about other meals I’ve eaten. I could tell you what I ate for breakfast, but could I draw a mental image of it? What did it smell like? How did the first bite taste? Was it as good as the last bite? Sheral’s sonorous voice drew me back into the moment, but my inner Brillat-Savarin clucked, Exactement. “In eating,” he writes, “we experience a certain special and indefinable well-being, which arises from our instinctive realization that by the act we perform we are repairing our bodily losses and prolonging our lives.” I resolved to pay closer attention to that which sustains me.

*

Though Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer by profession, his written legacy was central to the formation of the food writing and gastronomic world we know 190 years later. He posited, among many other things, that the company one keeps at a meal is as important as what is eaten; that hospitality and conviviality are essential and serve as direct aids to good digestion. Granted, his social circle – and the time required to dine as he did – differs greatly from what most of us recognize as the norm today.

It can be a struggle in this day and age to sit through a long meal, but it’s worth the fight. In the company of strangers brought together by passion and chance, removed from the expectation of cleaning up, we talked, drank, and ate for three hours. Who wanted to leave? We intoxicated ourselves with the spirit of joy.

*

We arrived to the dinner as strangers, but left with a feeling of satiation and heightened intimacy, which, I think, resides at the heart of any good dining experience. At the evening’s reluctant end, I heard a soft whistle behind me. Spence stood nearby, gazing at Casey with something like awe. “Man, you are tall!” he declared, smacking his leg and whistling again. He added, more to himself than to her: “And so pretty.” I am not sure if Casey heard his comment. I smiled inside and out. Spence tapped my arm and tipped his hat. “Y’all stay out of trouble, now.” We promised we’d see him again soon, but couldn’t speak for trouble.

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Saucy, sexy, and undeniably smart… Thank you for making the evening a night to remember!

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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In Gratitude: Eulogy for Jon Moris

IMG_2146This is the transcript for the speech I gave at my Dad’s life celebration in Featherville, Idaho, on July 25, 2015. I miss you, Dad.

*

Fifteen years and one week ago, friends and family gathered here in this very church to witness my father give his blessing for my husband to marry me. Today, we gather here once again, to begin a different but no less important new chapter in our lives. We are here, in sadness but also in loving celebration, to walk home the spirit of Jon Russell Moris. This is our time to share memories and stories that remind us, now and as we move forward in healing, of the great man Jon was: a father, brother, teacher, artist, writer, intellectual, mentor, leader, and fiercely outspoken individual.

In the words of Matthew Fox, a spiritual leader and a bit of a rebel soul: “We can take inspiration from the people who have gone before us… We don’t need to put them on a pedestal; we need to adopt them as templates for our own lives. That way our activism” – and I would add our sense of purpose –“will come from a deep place that is ultimately about a love for life. That is what sustains me: knowing that, whatever the outcome, I have stood with those who love life.” Today we gather as one to celebrate someone who genuinely, thoroughly loved life.

We exist in a deeply connected web that spans far beyond our everyday lives. Certainly, this became clear from the huge outpouring of condolences that our family received after Dad died. We are still registering the deluge of goodness he left as his legacy: thousands of students he mentored and advised, who moved into their professional careers and never forgot the strict, yet caring way he challenged them; myriad colleagues who benefitted from his advice, citing the sharp insight and formidable knowledge that Dad dispensed freely; friends from around the world, bridging a lifetime of experiences, shocked to their cores at the news of his sudden passing. Each message was an embrace from a vast universe I scarcely realized existed, but has now become an integral part of my own story.

Dad’s spirit was born free, and this is how he remains in my heart. I hear him in my chuckles and those of my children. I feel him hovering by the bookshelves with his reading glasses perched on his nose. Dad dwells in the mischievous chipmunks we feed on the porch. He’s up in the bedroom over the garage, clacking away on his typewriter. He’s sitting on the porch drinking his hundredth cup of daily coffee. Dad is everywhere. His death does not change this.

For the last seven years, I’ve had the good fortune to live in Utah and develop a strong relationship with my dad. But it is the little idiosyncrasies that I hold dearest in remembrance. Dad never hesitated to pick up a marked-down chair from Ikea – or, as he would say, ee KAY uh – and deliver it to me as a gift, whether I needed a chair or not… a reflection of his ample generosity as well as his appreciation for discounts and Swedish meatballs. (I recently learned he delivered chairs to all his friends, too, as a means of guaranteeing his own place to sit when he came to visit – it makes me smile to think how many gaudy orange Ikea chairs must populate the greater Utah corridor.) From him, I inherited a fierce love of books and especially of language. Dad was a true polymath; his mind drew connections between and across people and ideas, so that if he lent me – or better still, gave me – a book or gift, his loving thoughtfulness revealed itself. Dad encouraged me to express myself through writing, advice that I took to heart, because he meant it earnestly and because he recognized writing as a gift. And, though I laughed him off, for many years I was terrified that he would actually fulfill his promise to submit erotic fiction to Playboy under my name.

Dad understood me in a way that few others do. Even our rare silences were companionable. I made many friends in high school and college on the sole basis of being his daughter. And I never questioned it. People didn’t have to like me, but if they admired Dad’s twinkly-eyed charm, I happily befriended them. I just thought, “Oh, so you like my dad? You must be pretty okay.”

I have always felt honored to be a Moris, to be my father’s daughter in a family with a legacy of faith and humanitarianism. I would not be here if it wasn’t for my Dad and his parents. I am not thankful for the giant, Dad-shaped hole in my heart, but I am rich with blessings from and memories of Dad, and for those gifts I am intensely grateful. I stand with those who love life, and I stand with Dad.

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

 

 

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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

IMG_5989

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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