4th Annual Contest Winner
At some point, she stopped wearing the ring. I noticed when I came home from the library, helping her peel wax off the kitchen counter. When I asked, she told me that it had slipped off while she was swimming and sunk to the bottom of the lake. They searched for it, a gold glint in the mud and pebbles, but soon gave up.
It made sense that way; there were two things that she had been given by her mother and presumably her mother before that; two things that she managed to find wherever she went; the two things that she would eventually give to me, her eldest daughter: water and loss.
The women in my family tread. We take to it from birth; more water than anything else, we chase down coastlines. They raised me with the gentle lap of water on lakeshore, the stinging slap of a wave caught on the side of a boat. My grandmother was a lake; my mother, a river. I strained towards and from the two of them like a tidal estuary. The salt, the fierce sparkle of sun on wave, the storm and swell itself, became my birthright. I inherited the ocean of their grief.
A woman walking out of water looks more like The Ascent of Man than Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. She stoops, leans heavily from foot to foot, and tests out the ground. Her breasts swing and water falls from her body in rivulets. She straightens, squinting up into the sky, adjusting to the downward drag of gravity. Her hair, no longer loose to the current like a flag is to wind, clumps heavily at her neck. Venus glows bashfully in her clamshell at the edge of the sea. My mother and grandmother emerged from the lake at a crouch, marked with lines of scum and duckweed strata.
In retrospect, losing the ring didn’t mean anything at all, and my mother knew that. She knew as well as we did that she would drift, as rivers do, that she would fight us with all her being. She couldn’t keep still; she tore at herself and threatened to leave, and my siblings cried and grabbed at her with their cupped hands. But you can’t stop a river, so I sat at her bed and waited. I knew that her oxbow would flood over, the banks would break, the levees fail. She was from New Orleans, my mother. River country. Marshland. She kept a special eye on me, her first-born: inheritor of salt and a gulf of grief.
There’s an art to suspension. It’s being caught by time at the nape of the neck, where water rubs a bathtub ring on the body. When the two of them took to the water, they became landscape. Fish would come and nose at their legs. Above the surface their bodies were suntanned and lightly freckled; below, they were pale and luminous as the moon. From the shore, one could see the two of them bobbing like fishermen’s buoys. I was a stream of bubbles nearby. I was examining their water bodies, like icebergs extending far below their bright swim caps. I made them nervous by forgetting to resurface quickly; but once submerged I liked to stay under, in the echo of silence. I played at being back in the womb, floating as quietly as I could, poking at their white heels while they kicked at the water, counting how long I could hold my breath. Watching the light filter through the green murk in splintered rays. Above the surface of the water, my mother and grandmother would talk for ages. I’m not sure what they said to each other; underneath, I heard only the garbled sounds of their murmurs and exclamations. I missed all of their conversations, I didn’t catch a word.
Water clings to itself, remembering everything. In summer, a healthy maple tree will transpire—pull up through the roots and push out through the leaves—50 gallons of water per second. The water that a rainforest in the Congo perspired yesterday contains particles from the water that flooded the Mississippi in 1927, the year my grandmother was born. The same water ran through the Dead River until 1950, when the Long Falls Dam was constructed to regulate water flow for hydroelectric power, and the same water in which my mother lost her wedding band in 1994, when my siblings were four and six and I was ten.
My father didn’t leave my mother; he died of cancer soon after my younger brother was born. He had been an archeologist, though his specialty was sediment: ancient dust. My one memory of him from before his sickness was when he entered the house with a cheerful bellow, my sister and I crowding around to beat the old-as-time dirt from his clothes with our chubby hands. We adored him.
When my father started chemotherapy, he stopped his work and immediately started losing weight. Benny was only a few weeks old, and it seemed that as he grew bigger and stronger, my father became smaller and weaker. We were too young to know—our parents hadn’t wanted to tell us—but my sister and I kept begging him to play with us, to toss and spin us like he used to, and so my grandmother sat us down and told us frankly that our father, her son-in-law, was very sick. She was perfectly matter-of-fact, gripping her chair as she spoke, explaining that we should cry if we needed to, but what he needed right now was some peace and, of course, our love. While we wept and sniffled, she stroked our hair, rocking the baby Benny in her arms. I felt cheated. It seemed unfair to me that we should have to lose my father for something as useless as a brother, who didn’t do much but cry and sleep. He was even sleeping then, on the most terrible day of our lives, blissfully unaware of the awful cost at which he had been born.
I was five years old on the morning that my father died, and while a lot of my memory has grown foggy over the years, this day has only ever gotten clearer. I woke up to the sound of my mother’s soft crying. A car pulled into the driveway, and I heard the family doctor’s voice as he entered the house. A moment later, my mother opened the door and knelt by my bed, placing her hands on me. If I trembled at all, she didn’t notice. Her eyes were red and she kept them closed while she rocked back and forth, murmuring prayers. Then she stood abruptly and did the same to Alicia, still fast asleep in her crib. My grandmother, who was living with us full-time at that point, knocked at the door and asked my mother if she was ready for the body to be moved. The doctor stood behind her, looking nervous. My mother straightened up, brushed her long hair back from her eyes, and nodded. After the three of them left, I crept to the doorframe in my nightgown to watch my father leave. The doctor was motioning outside where a stretcher was waiting, but my mother ignored him and bent down to pick my father up in her arms. His wrists hung limply, withered to the bone. Cradled in my mother’s strong arms, he looked like a baby. The doctor held the door open while she walked to his car and laid my father gently inside. Before he left the house, the doctor held my grandmother’s hand and spoke a parting prayer: May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. My mother rode with him to the mortician’s office. She was gone the whole day.
After my mother left, my grandmother stayed behind to watch us and prepare the house for shiva. She walked into the kitchen; I heard the pop of the stove as she put a kettle on for tea and the hiss of the kitchen chair as she sat down heavily. I waited a minute to hear if she moved and then padded down the hall in my socks and crawled into her lap. I felt like I had something stuck in my throat; it was as if glue was filling up my head and eyes. My grandmother placed her hand on my head and exhaled a long, forced breath. We did not cry. There was a rattling noise from the bedroom; Alicia had woken up and was shaking the bars of her crib. My grandmother ignored her for a second, and then eased me off her lap. From the other room, Benny started to wail. I sat where my grandmother had placed me on the tile floor. I thought about my mother, how gently her arms had folded over my father’s body to carry him over the threshold of the house—between the waterways of worlds. I sat like a rock, forgotten, while the day passed by. My mother’s wordless grief washed over me; her absence flooded the house. Neighbors came and left, brushing my head with their fingers, asking nothing. At sunset, my grandmother lit a yahrtzeit candle and placed it on the kitchen table, tucked us into bed, and then pulled black drapes over all of the mirrors in the house.
After my mother lost her wedding ring, I began to dream of water. Rooms filled up and we swam in the flooded street, the whole world an ocean. I dreamt so hard and so deep that I woke drenched in forgetfulness. Days passed by in a single night. I spent one weekend poring over my grandmother’s Talmud, stolen from the bottom drawer of her nightstand, a relic from a time when religion was not just something for tradition’s sake, like an old costume stuffed in a closet. I had only seen her open it once, and that was during the week after my father died. She had been reading quietly, mouthing the words on the page to herself. I hadn’t known that my grandmother could read Hebrew, but it became the language of her grief, and she taught me to read it as well. When she saw me standing in the doorway watching her, she abruptly closed the book and set it on the table in front of her, shifting her chair to face me and opening her arms for a hug. I didn’t know at the time what the book was—only that it was part of the strange ritual of candles and black cloth that had seized control of our house. I read the translated pages of the Talmud in a closet with a flashlight, skipping over words I did not know and lingering on phrases that seemed to hold special power. One page in the heavy book was dog-eared; I flipped to it and scanned the page, my eyes finally lighting on Psalm 90:5: You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning. My head ran through stories I had heard from my friends who went to Hebrew school. The first un-creation of mythic earth took the form of a flood, God’s temper spilled into a washout. Forty days and nights of rain was something unimaginable. But having recently torn through the “Myths and Legends” section of the local library, I was beginning to realize that water makes a cycle of time, reminding us that loss of land is wrapped up into loss of self, of life. Our souls leave our bodies through water; we bleed when struck, we are soaked into the groundwater or evaporated into the sky. It might be the Ganges, the Nile, or the Styx, but most everyone seems to agree that death is a river for crossing. On the fifth anniversary of my father’s death, my mother lost her wedding ring in Flagstaff Lake: a jagged serpentine in western Maine. There are 17 rivers in the United States called “Dead,” but only one of them has swallowed an entire town, and this was the town they called Flagstaff Village.
Flagstaff Lake had warm, rust-colored water. It was too murky for anything to be seen below the surface, but we dove anyway, hoping to find an old coin or other proof that the town had been there. It was a ghost lake, but we weren’t there alone. Sport boats zoomed around the northern perimeters, so we hugged the opposite coastline. We were renting the house from an elderly couple, but it had been recently built—constructed when their children could no longer remember a time when there had been no lake. My mother and grandmother spent hours every morning in the water. I swam around their heels, excited and terrified that I might see the roof of a house, an old car. I imagined feeling, with my foot, the tip of an old church steeple, perhaps even finding a chest of valuable artifacts not seen for nearly half a century. Such a length of time seemed enormous to me. It had occurred recently enough, I knew, for my grandmother to have been alive when the town was still a town. But my grandmother was the oldest person I knew.
The old Flagstaff Village had a filling station, a general store, and a small hotel. Residents were forced to evacuate while the dam was being built, and the town was stripped of most of its buildings. Then the gates were closed, and the flooding began. By 1950, the town was drowned.
My mother cooked dinner in the large tiled kitchen every evening at the lake house. After spending all day swimming, her hair hung in strings and her fingers were wrinkled, lit through the window by the evening light coming off the lake, she was the most beautiful sight. My grandmother would start the water boiling in the late afternoon and then sit outside on the porch and smoke cigarettes. I would often sit with her, but the smell made me so sick that I couldn’t stay long without feeling nauseous. I wanted so badly to hear her stories, however, that I persisted, eyes watering and holding back a cough.
There was a rope swing on the property, old and bleached from sun, a braided line just thin enough to wrap my hand around. When it had been first tied up, perhaps for the original owner’s children, the lake must have been deep enough to dive from close to shore, but over time, the shallows of the lake had slowly been filling up from silt brought in from the river. I could sit on the swing as it hung straight and still touch the lake bottom with my feet, just a foot or two below the surface. We were forbidden to play on it lest we jump where it was too shallow and break our necks. Alicia and Benny were content to splash, water-winged, while I planned my ascent of the swing as if it were my sole destiny to conquer it.
It was during the evening, after my mother had left the water and taken my siblings inside with her, that I finally summed up the nerve to climb the swing. I held the rope in my hand while I tried to scramble up the lichen-covered rocks that lined the lakeshore. After slipping twice, I clenched the rope in my teeth and used my hands to find holds within the cracked granite. Empty insect shells still clung to the rock, dry and pale, crunching under my bare feet. With a final heave, I pulled myself to the top of the rock and surveyed the lake below me. It must not have been more than six feet, but a deep fear gripped me as I held the rope limply in one hand. My mouth went dry at the sight of the water far below. The swing now seemed to me a thread, meant to hold me somehow above the unforgiving maw of the lake that had already claimed a whole town. I stood there, trying to regain my nerve, as the minutes ticked by. A breeze stirred the pine needles behind me, raising the hair on my neck. Before I could recognize what had happened, I had gripped the rope tightly and stepped off the rock. A shriek froze in my throat as I fell freely, and then I was caught by the rope and hurtled outwards towards the water. At the peak of the swing, eyes streaming with exhilaration and relief, I tried to unclench my hands from the rope and found I could not. The swing slowed and I hung in the air, breathless, before my stomach pitched and I fell back towards the unforgiving rocks. Euphoria gave way to terror as the shoreline hurtled towards me. I turned helplessly and braced my feet to soften the blow, but my toes only grazed the rocks. My momentum was now too slow to leap safely into deeper water; I was stuck on the rope’s endless swinging, getting dizzier by the minute. I hung on limply to the rope while the world spun, wishing for the steadiness of sweet ground.
As soon as the swinging subsided to gentle rocking, I let go and dropped into the shallow water beneath me. My mother called my name from inside the house. Shaking off water droplets and reaching for my towel in the grass, I stumbled up the hill to the back porch where my grandmother was smoking. I slumped next to her, exhausted, and promptly threw up. My grandmother swore as I splattered the ground in front of her with saliva, and then she covered her mouth.
While I sat reeling from dizziness, my grandmother rubbed my back with one hand and held her cigarette away from me in the other. I heaved one last time and then sat back weakly. My mother was standing in the doorway, a concerned look on her face.
“It’s because of the cigarettes,” she said. “You know she hates the smell.”
My grandmother didn’t say anything; to this day, I don’t know why she kept quiet. Perhaps she could see, from the wetness of my swimsuit at that late hour and my embarrassment at purging a wetness from within myself, that to allow for such a luxury of words to spill between us would breach my mother’s buffers at that time, so close to the anniversary of my father’s death. She held her tongue. After that evening, my mother didn’t let my grandmother smoke while we were around, and I developed a sway in my step that I could not shake.
My grandmother’s birthday was in August, but I didn’t know how old she was. She had explicitly told us that she didn’t want a big party—which, my mother explained, meant that she did in fact want us to make some kind of fuss. It was her idea to paddle to the wild blueberry barrens on the far shore and pick enough to make a pie. My grandmother would watch my siblings at the house. On the morning of the big trip, the sky was gray and worrisome.
“It’ll clear up,” my mother said, looking hopeful. She moved around the kitchen, pulling together ingredients for lunch. My grandmother measured ground coffee into the percolator. The two women—my mother in her carpenter jeans and loose sweater, my grandmother in slacks and a cardigan—stood next to each other, framing a measure of time of which I had been previously unaware. It dawned on me that I might one day look like they did: eyes gathering wrinkles, skin freckled with wavering veins. My grandmother had a skin tag on the back of her neck that showed whenever she bent her head. I could feel it with my fingers when she kneeled to hug me before my mother and I set out. A life jacket was buckled tightly around me, and my mother and I walked down to the lakeshore.
A light breeze stirred the surface of the lake. It was early enough in the day for the water to retain some of the glassiness typical of early morning. I climbed in the bow of the canoe and held the gunwales cheerfully as my mother pushed off the shore with the blade of her paddle, launching us into the mist that had settled over the lake the previous night. Our journey across was peaceful, serene—she interrupted the silence only to gently correct my paddling stroke.
Stepping through a thicket of low, green scrub, we bent to gather wild blueberries. I raked my fingers underneath a bush and a handful of small berries fell into my palm: a few hard, light-green or deep-red berries, but most were dusty blue. The air was sweet and heady and the clouds, grey and low like a blanket, weighed on the hillside. The leaves, green and stiff like scales, scratched my skin as I reached hand after hand into the thick brush. Before long, my bucket was half-full.
We took a lunch break on a rock set high above the blueberry barrens. My mother unzipped her backpack and took out a loaf of bread and a wedge of sharp cheese. I took a handful of blueberries from my bucket and released them in a small pile before us. My mother took one and rolled it between her index finger and thumb scrutinizingly. It was small and perfect, even bead-like, and had a crown like a flower opposite the stem.
“The wild ones are so much tangier,” she said, popping the berry into her mouth. “You can really taste what makes it a blueberry.” I bit one in half and stared at the green flesh, surprised.
“They’re not blue inside!”
“The skin is where the color is,” she said. We fell silent for a little while, and she sat in thought while I practiced sucking the insides from the wild berries so that just the tart skin wrapped around my teeth. Looking over at me, my mother started to laugh.
“Oh Gracie, you’re all blue!”
“What do you mean?!”
I picked up her reflective sunglasses and studied my face. Sure enough, my lips and teeth—and a good deal of my mouth—were stained deep purple from the berries. I laughed. My mother sighed, leaning back and looking into the grey sky. The granite was littered with smooth rocks that had been thrown up by the river. I watched as she took one of these rocks in her hands, an egg-shaped stone that had been warmed by the sun, and placed it in on her t-shirt in the center of her belly. She took another stone and solemnly positioned it on her sternum, continuing up the rest of her body until, after she had found a round pebble for the hollow of her neck, she balanced the last slender rock on the gentle slope of her forehead.
“What are you doing?” I giggled.
“Sending a message to your father,” she said seriously.
There was a time when she hadn’t talked about it. She hadn’t talked much at all, allowing the confluence of her pain and fear to break the boat of language, gushing with enough force to smash anything that ventured into her waters. I could not look her in the eye at such times. I was afraid that my gaze would break the wall she had so carefully constructed around herself. It had happened before, just a year earlier, when I asked one too many questions about my father.
“Can’t you think before you speak?” she had snarled. Restraining herself, she lowered her voice and said, “You need to realize that it’s hard for me to think about.”
“I want to know about him!” I had protested. Summing up as much resentment as I could, I closed my eyes and spat, “You act like he was never even here.”
“That’s enough,” she snapped. Furiously she walked down the hallway, and I heard the apartment door slam before her footsteps hurried down the fire stairs. In the wake of her anger, Alicia and Benny toddled out of their room, confused and frightened.
It must not have been five minutes before my mother reappeared, but it felt like an hour. She opened the door, her eyes red and puffy.
“I’m sorry,” she said, bending down to hug me. I allowed myself to relax in her arms, trying to memorize the scent of her hair, the specific softness of the skin of her neck. Alicia and Benny clung to her skirt, and she knelt to comfort them quietly. I tangled my fingers in her hair, leaned over the slope of her shoulder and pressed my chin against her collarbone, but could not douse the ache that shuddered through my entire body. My mother softened, lowering her guard. I imagined wisps of sorrow riding her shoulders and twining around her fingers, rather than welling up in silence.
I watched while my mother carefully placed rocks up her whole body. The taxonomy of loss is written in an alluvial field: stone rounded to the smoothness of water, water hardened to the heft of stone. It was the first time that she had shown anything but stoicism while talking about his passing—a coldness that had hurt me, seeming nonchalant or irreverent. I could not remember much about my father. I hadn’t realized that after five years my mother was still nursing a hole inside of her as deep as the lake itself.
She lay there in silence for a long time. I looked up at the sky and tried to imagine what my life would have been like if my father hadn’t died. I do not know how long we lay there, only that when I finally opened my eyes, she had gone to fetch our lunch containers. They had blown across the blueberry barrens in the rising wind.
“We should go,” she called, starting to walk back towards me. I zipped my lifejacket and jogged down to the shoreline. I tugged on the bowline knot, and with my mother’s help pulled the canoe back into the water. Stowing the pail of blueberries between my legs, I dug my paddle in the water and we inched away from the shore.
It was a cold, hard paddle across the lake, and we were both tired and shivering as we struggled against the damp headwind. I promised myself that as soon as I got back to the house I would curl up in the armchair and finish reading the book I had started earlier that week. The pailful of blueberries that we had picked rocked against my leg in the bottom of the boat. As we approached the opposite shore, the wind shifted and began to pummel our small canoe on the broadside. The waves slapped against the side of the boat, and we rocked dangerously from side to side.
“Keep paddling, Grace!” my mother shouted, her voice faint over the gale.
I dug my paddle into the water furiously, but it was thrown aside. As I leaned to recover, the wind grabbed the bow of the boat, already unbalanced because of our weight difference, and tipped us on our side. I screamed, heard my mother shouting “Swim!” And then I was knocked into the water underneath the canoe. My arms flailed and I tried to surface, but the seat of the canoe blocked my way. My life vest kept me pinned beneath the boat until I wrenched myself out and gasped for air. My feet were numb, and I struggled to move them. A few yards away, my mother stood up in the waves. I then realized that my legs had sunk deep into mud. The metal pail bobbed up and down next to me, empty. Wrenching my legs from the muck, I tried to stand in the shallow lake and immediately fell over. My mother waded towards me, pulling the canoe by a painter line. She asked if I was okay, and I nodded, grabbing the empty bucket with my numb fingers. We dragged the canoe onto the shore, and then broke through the few meters of brush to reach the road. The house was not far.
She squeezed my shoulder, but did not talk we walked. “Don’t worry about the blueberries, Grace,” she said once we were back inside. I had forgotten about the purpose of our trip, and looked down at the empty pail that I still carried in my hand. Taking it from my fingers, my mother kissed me on the forehead and sent me off to the shower. I heard her bustling around the kitchen, still in her wet clothes, cleaning up. The hot shower loosened my arms and legs. I sank onto my bed and slept until Alicia woke me to come to dinner. I walked in to see my siblings clustered around the kitchen counter, where my grandmother had set the familiar candle. I hastened to join them, and my mother lit a match and held it to the candle on the windowsill.
“El male rachamim shochen bam’romim…” began my grandmother. I bowed my head, remembering the old words as she spoke them, remembering a time when the candle burned for a week, when my mother wept with her face to the wall. Because after that—nothing. She must have dammed up a Dead Sea inside herself with all of the tears she held back. She must have felt like the Dust Bowl.
“… lenishmat Paul…”
My father’s name, the only time it was spoken aloud.
“… beshalom al mishkavo venomar amen.” Amen.
I glanced around. Alicia was staring down at the ground. Benny fidgeted with his shirt. My grandmother looked strangely peaceful, swaying slightly with her eyes closed. My mother’s lips were tightened, holding one arm across her chest with a strained sigh of her shoulders.
“Thank you, Paul,” she said softly. “We miss you.” My siblings murmured their assent.
Finally my grandmother looked up. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Paul than to eat his favorite foods. To the table, you three,” she said, easing me, Alicia, and Benny along with a gentle hand.
The dinner table was heavy with rice pilaf, boiled vegetables, and thick brown bread. My mother placed a bowl of blueberries in the center of the meal and sat down next to Benny. The blueberries were bloated; droplets of water clung to their small crowns and ran down into the bottom of the dish. I stared at the bowl, frustrated. It was a quiet dinner; Alicia and Benny clattered their spoons and my mother stared silently at her plate, struck by a pensiveness that I had only seen when she felt the need to escape, to blow off stormwater far away from us.
After dinner, I went to my room and fell into bed, exhausted. I slept dreamlessly and easily, waking to sun streaming through the window. I spent the morning at the library with my grandmother and didn’t see my mother at all until we were home from lunch. I was using a butter knife to hack away at the candle wax, which had hardened to the kitchen counter, when I noticed her naked finger while she cut up carrots for a salad. My mother’s wedding ring was gone.
I felt a stabbing pain in my stomach, but didn’t quite know why. I pulled myself closer on my elbows to be sure that the ring really was gone, that I wasn’t mistaken.
“Be careful with that knife, love,” she said.
“Mom, what happened to your ring?”
“Oh?” She absently ran her fingers over her left hand. “I don’t know. Where it went, I mean. We think it must have fallen off in the lake.”
“Grandma and me.”
“While you were swimming?”
She shrugged. “Where could I have left it? I don’t normally take it off.”
I thought about the lake; the rusty water holding the last traces of the old riverbed, the buried town, and now, my parents’ marriage. The old lump started to swell in my throat, like a finger pressing on my windpipe.
“Did you look for it?”
“Of course, Grace. We dove for it straightaway, but the water was too cloudy to see anything.”
I must have looked agitated, because she laid her hand on my shoulder.
“It’s okay. It was just a ring.”
“No it wasn’t!” She stared at me for a minute. “I can’t believe you’re not upset about this.”
“I am, believe me. But Grace—” She stopped for a moment, thinking, and then said, “Your losses are your own.” She glanced at me as if to see my reaction, and then went on without looking at me, as if she wasn’t quite sure if what she was saying was true, but felt that it must be said. “Sometimes we feel as if we have to scoop up all the worries of the people who are dearest to us. To hold their pain so that they won’t have to, or because it looks like they don’t want to.
“But it doesn’t work that way,” she went on heavily. “You can’t sustain it. Don’t try to take it from me, Grace. You’re not being fair to yourself.”
This moment was the first time I realized there were things that she discussed with my grandmother while I lingered underwater; questions which would become central to my own life as well. Later, I would find words for the thought that she could not express: the heart’s movement to sorrow is a loop force, a waterwheel turning over the inevitable trajectory of experience. A river will shift its course a thousand times and never settle, reclaim ancient channels within its floodplains, break its own banks to get to the sea. Mistakes are our inheritance; we keep having to learn the same things over and over again. We are strung together by these lessons like crows perched in a line along a telephone wire. During an afternoon spent looking out at the water from the lake house porch, I had asked my grandmother why she kept repeating the same stories over and over.
“I’m telling you so that you’ll remember,” she said at first, turning her head to blow a stream of smoke over her shoulder. “But if you’re getting different meanings out of them every time, am I really repeating them?”
Home page and header wild blueberries photo courtesy Shutterstock.