The Headstone

Here is the final product. I’m pleased with it, except that when we go there lately, there is a picture of a guy. I don’t know who he is, but he is always stuck on a little wire sign, facing my mom’s grave. This is the kind of thing that would drive my mom crazy if it were done to her when she were alive, but tickle her to death if she thought of doing it to someone else. What she would call a Petty Torment.



Here is what we have so far:

headstone front

headstone back

It’s hard to imagine in granite, and in three dimensions. The letters look a little funky to me, but they only have two fonts and one is arial-ish and this is the other one. It looks classic in real life. Even if it looks like college football team lettering in the sketch.

I guess it’s hard to go wrong with tombstones. It will feel good to have it done. AS soon as I get the OK from all my siblings, it’s a go.


Yes ladies and gentleman, today I went out into the wild world to garner material, and also to do some errands that were overdue. Here are the highlights:


I went to the Monument Store. You know the one (yup). I was helped by the same very knowledgable, matter of fat fact woman. She is still quite helpful and quite enormous. I still wondered where she finds shirts that fit her.


I ordered up a grave marker for my mom. You may be wondering, “But lisa, didn’t your mom die in 2005?” And you would be right. She did die in October of 2005. Need I remind you that, first of all, it was late in 2005. Secondly (a nod to my mom who hated me to say ‘second of all’) I left this task to one of my sisters who shall remain nameless but whose name rhymes with Erin,and who was unable to complete it. Thirdly, I’m just barely getting by managing my own life, so get off my case. Lastly, I was busy managing her estate and her unimaginably complex and weird survivors.

But when my grandpa called inquiring if we needed help with paying for a marker because he had been to the plot and there was no marker, well, things got more urgent and done adequately was better than stunningly un-done. Nothing like a little shame to light a fire under my butt.

It’s going to have my mom’s name (her born name, maiden name), Susan Elizabeth Dunn, her birth year and the year of her death. It will have a celtic tree of life inscribed into it on the front face, and the names of all 4 kids and 11 grandkids on the back.


I’m seeking advice on a couple of things, because the final text is changeable for the next week or so:

First, is the maiden name thing OK? She never changed her name back from her second husband’s name, and never took her third husband’s name, so it seems weird to put either of those. Am I breaking any big taboo by reverting to her maiden name?

Second, we planned to put “Mom and Grandma to” …. And all the names, but she was Daughter, Sister, Wife, Friend, Mom and Grandma, so is it too busy to put all those things? I went with just mom and grandma because that was typical, but the other things were just as important. Any opinions from those who know us or those who don’t? This is where comments would be really appropriate.

So there is the Monumental Errand. Done mostly.

Next, I had to try to find a sunscreen that won’t give me zits. Another part of aging that sneaked up on me is the fact that my face doesn’t tan any more. It splotches. As if someone smacked me with a henna teabag on the forehead. So I’ve taken to wearing a hat with a wide brim almost everywhere. And I’m no longer young enough to make it a statement. I’m just another middle aged woman in a hat. I might even qualify as officially eccentric.

The guy who cut my hair said shell out the dough and go to the department store cosmetics counter (something I am loathe to do) and ask for a good sunscreen that won’t give you zits. He was right, of course, because at Herbergers they will take back your sunscreen if you don’t like it, unlike Walgreens. I got some stuff, and I’ll get back to you about if it is zitless, but let me tell you about the woman who helped me. My God! The real world is interesting.

Young woman, in her late 20s, lots of make-up. Dressed all in black, capri leggings and fishnets stockings, over high heels, with a black lab-coat thing over it all. This is all pretty standard. But when Iasked her about a good sunscreen that won’t give me zits on my face, she looked at me and started to talk about what might work for my skin type. Every time I looked up, she was looking at my neck, which I took to be some sort of make-up counter trick she had been taught about calculating skin type. It made me a little worried about how my neck looked, but that was fleeting.

She had me follow behind her wobbly heeled-fishneted self to a different counter, and then she leaned over the counter and said, “Do you think it ‘s the titanium zinc oxide that is making your skin react?” I’ve forgotten the actual substance she said, because this time when I looked at her, I realized with a very disturbed sensation that she was (get this) Still Looking At My Neck! Or maybe it was my shoulder, but it was never, in fact, my face.

For the rest of my distracted description of what I wanted in a sunscreen (sun blockage and no zits), I kept trying to catch her eye. She never waivered from looking at my neckish-shoulder area. She smiled and furrowed her brow at all the right places in the conversation. Her posture was attentive. She just never looked me in the eye. Never.


In case you don’t know. When you talk to people there is a standard polite way to make eye-contact. Babies know it. Children know it. Make-up counter women are almost always good at it. No one has to tell you to make better eye-contact, for the most part. Too much, and it makes people nervous and intimidated, too little they get nervous and suspicious. Although I recently read that men love lots of eye contact from women.

We’ll set aside Native American cultures and the Orient for the sake of this discussion. No let’s not. Even in those cultures, you either look down, averting your gaze, or you make fleeting eye contact. There is no culture in the world where the right thing is to look at the other person’s neck. None. Shoulders? No. Chest? Only in the bar scene.

And let me tell you, there are only three possibilities here. Either I had something horrible on my neck (believe me, I checked), she had some sort of brain disorder, or she was doing a college research project on how people react when you stare at their neck. I bought my 30 dollar sunscreen, which was tinted, even though I said I wanted un-tinted, and got the hell out of there. She came over, cocked her head and smiled at my neck and said, “do you wear lipgloss?” offering me a free sample. I didn’t look at the color,didn’t blink, “Yes. Yes I do. Thanks.” Damn it was disturbing.

I do feel a little tricked, because now I have tinted sunscreen with an SPF of 15, when I wanted a clear one with an spf of 30, but what the hell. I’m not sure I’m willing to go back. When I asked if I could return the stuff she was suggesting, she said, “Oh yeah, I’m the manager of this counter, just ask for me.” Brutal.


While my mom was sick, we were operating in crisis mode. Day to day, worry to worry. It’s hard work, dying. And not just for the sick person. It’s hard work. Lots of hours. Hours on the road, hours in the hospital. In hospital rooms, in hospital halls, waiting rooms, elevators and parking ramps. Hours at her house instead of mine. Much of it is just stupid. But we had a mission, and we were on it.
The stupidest thing I think we had to do was plug the parking meter while we were visiting my mom. Visiting isn’t even a good word. We were being with her. Hours and hours every day. But the meter doesn’t care how important my presence is. I suppose it was a good break, a reason to go outside. But sometimes looking for a goddamned quarter is the last straw on a very heavy and precarious load.

But I digress. The caring time was drudgery. It was work and it kept us all busy. But after my mom died. After all the trying, and thinking and working was over; there was something else waiting. And it wasn’t something better than work and exhaustion and sadness. It was fear. I can’t remember exactly when it was in the saga of this part of my life that I started to be afraid.

But I remember what it felt like. I remember waking up gasping and terrified. Abject horror and doom prickled my skin and made me sweat. I just woke up scared. The kind of scared I haven’t been since I was a kid. But when I was a kid, there was usually a bad dream preceding the scary feeling. And if I yelled loud enough, my mom came down and I felt safe.

This scared was new. There was nothing solid to hang it on, no dream to talk myself out of. Not to mention no mom to holler for. Sometimes when I was in bed and feeling really scared, I’d just reach out a hand or a foot and touch Andy. Just touch him. And it made me a little less terrified. Until I fell asleep and woke up scared again.

Maybe a month after my mom died, I got sick. I had had a nagging sort of pain in my side for months. My doctor said it was not a big deal. But it worried me. I do lean towards hypochondria. But all of a sudden I was really sick, projectile vomiting so hard I wet myself. I couldn’t keep a couple sips of water down without being sick. I think I went a night and half the next day without eating or drinking.

I was dehydrated and miserable. Dehydration is one of the worst feelings in the world. Everything feels bad and wrong. My head hurt, my joints hurt, I couldn’t stand up without feeling nauseated and dizzy.

I was terrified. Looking back, I had the flu. But I was certain I was dying. I was sure that what I had was related to the pain in my side. And the fact that my mom was dead. Funny leap there, isn’t it? But I made it. In my defense, all my mom’s sickness started with a pain in her side that woke her up in the night. She went into the hospital and 7 monthes later she died.

I insisted that Andy call my doctor’s office and get me in. They told him I probably had the flu and to keep trying fluids. I laid on the floor and cried. I told him to keep calling, call another clinic. We found somewhere that would see me. I imagine I looked like a sad, sad puppy. I couldn’t keep my head up. I shuffled and I carried a barf bag.

When the nurse brought us into a room, she was very nice to me. She asked if I wanted the lights off. I did. I wanted them so off. And she turned them off and wrote by a little nursey-light. But when she asked meif I’d like the lights off, I almost wept. And as she asked me about my symptoms, I answered her questions, but the thing I wanted to tell her was, “My mom just died. She seemed fine. But something inside her was killing her and we didn’t know. She didn’t know. It’s killing me now. Please understand me, I’m not crazy. I’m not whining. I’m scared and sick and I need you to help me.”

The thought had ricocheted around in my head that what I was afraid of for the last weeks was death. But everyone (except Kwai Chang Caine) is afraid of death. I wasn’t prepared for how toothy, ugly, lurking and real death becomes when it takes a real person from you. I imagine it’s different when someone dies young like my mom. When they seem OK, and then they just aren’t. It made me scared for myself.

If someone dies after a lingering illness or a few close calls, I imagine you get fear, maybe even abject terror in the night. But I also imagine it takes a different iteration; less sneaky and toothy and more deteriorating and haunting. But I don’t know. I only know how it was for me.

Like I said, I had the flu. I (with the blessing of my doctor) took one of the leftover cancer anti-nausea pills and started to be able to hold liquids down. I recovered.

But I had the side pain checked out again and found out I had a cyst on one of my ovaries. It’s funny, but although it worried me (only a couple months after my my mom died from “metastatic adenocarcinoma of the ovary”), it wasn’t as scary as when I just had the flu.

I should say, I still have some lingering fear that I’ll die young. But that “doom feeling” has faded. The night terror has abated. I’m getting to a new normal and it’s OK. It didn’t last forever.


I think I wrote something very similar before ( Maybe you can tell me what the best parts of each one are and I can combine them.

What kind of person was my mom? My mom was the kind of person who people relied on. Anyone falling on hard times ended up at our house. If hard times came to you, Susie might show up, watch the kids, clean the house from stem to stern and bring dinner made from scratch.

My gramma used to say, “Susie can clean a room in the time it takes other people to think about cleaning it.” Don’t get me wrong; she was no Susie Homemaker at home, but she knew how to help in a crisis.

She was the kind of person who inspired loyalty. A peculiar and fierce kind of loyalty that, as far as I can tell, comes from having an unpredictable depth of or breadth of emotional responses. People loved her best not because she was so good, but because they knew she could be so good. If only she weren’t hounded by so many demons.

If only she weren’t so emotionally volatile. The kind of love and loyalty that always comes with a fear both of a person and for them. I guess for a while the way to describe the kind of relationships people had with my mom was to say they were co-dependent. I found that to be too limiting, too simplistic and judgmental to describe anything so real and complex.

Most of the time she was the kind of person who scared little kids for the first ten minutes and then won them over with her sheer uninhibited goofiness. She was like an alternative, anti-Mary Poppins. Sure she read your kids a story, but she’d also cut up her own clothes without hesitation to make a Zorro costume. Then she’d drill them on the different parts of a sword, or types of knives. My preschool kids came home and sprinkled daily conversation with words like scimitar and scabbard.

She’d take them on treasure hunts and send them home with a wicked grin and a bag of the most bizarre and worthless crap. The kind of stuff kids loved, but most adults would have thrown away. Broken watches, animal teeth and bones, ribbons, buttons, plastic swords and drink umbrellas.

My mom could usually out-gross any kid. She was the kind of gramma who would chide a kid for picking his nose by telling him, “Don’t wipe that on your pants. If you’re not going to eat it, give it to me!” This won over both my boys, but she couldn’t always turn the crass off, and sometimes it got embarrassing.

On a good day my mom would call up and without any introduction say, “The hairy patch on the rear leg of a horse!” to which the proper response was, “fetlock!” She’d say, “Thanks, Bye” And you might not hear from her again that day. Calling your kids was not cheating on the crossword.

On a bad day she might call and say, again without niceties, “I sure don’t know why you’re punishing me, but I think we’d better talk about it.” Sometimes I knew what she was talking about, sometimes I didn’t. It didn’t matter. The only way to avoid a long angry spell would be first, admit that you were punishing her. Pleading ignorance would only get you in deeper.

Secondly, you needed to tell her why you were doing it. That admission, to be fully valid, needed to entail why either a deep character flaw in you, or deep relationship problem (husbands preferred) caused you to mistakenly take it out on her. If you cried, which wouldn’t be hard, because she had a gift for making people cry- If you cried and followed all the above guidelines, you might get a call the next day like nothing happened. If you didn’t, her anger could last for months.

And that’s the thing. Life with my mom was messy. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was icky, but it was intense and imperfect. When she got sick, it didn’t fit in with the rest of her life. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with her at all except that while she was sitting at a green light waiting to make some weird or wonderful left turn; while she was daydreaming about the crossword or how mad she was at somebody; while she was being herself, cancer blew through a red and none of that stuff mattered.

A big day, part 1

I went out to lunch with my only brother last week. I needed to go downtown and so did he. I offered to take him. Afterwards I took the wrong exit to get him back home, so we decided to make the best of it and get lunch and stop at the headstone store. My mom still doesn’t have a marker on her grave.


I can only accept responsibility for this inasmuch as I did try to give the job to someone else early on. You know what they say about if you want a job done right? Totally true. We’re getting way past the 1 year mark, and I feel bad when I think about it. So when I realized you could just go to the headstone store, I wasn’t just curious. I was in the market.


It isn’t actually called the Headstone Store. It’s something more dignified, like St. Paul Monuments or something. But you don’t have to get too far into the place to figure out what they sell. They sell beautiful markers for all your grave-marking needs. Mostly in shades of gray and black, but also some shades of pink, which look like headcheese, with bits of char sprinkled in.


The woman who works there knew exactly what church we were referring to, knew the history of that particular graveyard and knew who to ask for to double check what she thought she knew about the requirements. She was polite, patient and professional. She was amazing. I looked on-line and at lots of pamphlets, and buying a gravemarker is ridiculously confusing. She made it seem simple.


She was also the largest, fattest (can I say that?), most obese person I have ever had a conversation with. She was so heavy that the weight of her eyebrows caused cleavage between her forhead and the bridge of her nose. She was big enough that her face was just a tiny part of her head, surrounded by flesh. She was astounding.


We heard her from an office when we came in. She just hollered out, “I’ll be with you folks in just a little bit.” We told her not to worry, we wanted to look around. And we did. Very few people are good at shopping for this kind of thing, mercifully. I hope I never get good at it.


We were ooh-ing and ahh-ing the photos of markers and snickering about why some of them were still sitting in the store instead of marking a grave. We saw fantastic celtic crosses, obelisks, angels and the standard lik-m-ade stick kind. We paid no attention to the employee helping the old man and young woman in the office. We did notice them, and feel sad for them, whatever their story was, how good could it be?


We had walked all the way to the back of the store, and by the time she was done, she came out of an office behind my brother and me. “Whenever you folks need help, I’m here. Anything in particular you’re looking for?” I didn’t even turn around when I said, “We’re just checking out your beautiful pictures here.” Patrick turned around, and said we’d be right over.


I noticed out of the corner of my eye that when he turned around he was sort of stiff, like he moved his whole body around instead of just his head. And his mouth was open. I turned around, saw her, and said something like, “Give us 2 minutes, here.” I turned around just like he did. We flipped some pages of the display photos. I hope from the back we looked normal, because we both had our mouths wide open and our eyes slid towards each other.


We’re so crass and inappropriate. We couldn’t just not notice, couldn’t not notice that we noticed and couldn’t hide our astonishment. Watching her walk was no less surprising than if the whole store had sprouted enormous legs and crossed the street. It was puzzling, disconcerting and fascinating. But she sat down after a few short steps. I think we were all relieved.


It must be hard to be that kind of big. Exhausting just to brush your hair or walk to the bathroom. I had this distracting buzz in my head while talking to her. And it was distracting, because she had lots of good information and I wanted to listen to her. I swear I did.


“Assumption in Richfield has two sections…” Fat, Fat, Fat, huge, you are so big. How do you find a hat. They don’t make shirts that size do they? Do you have to learn to sew if you get that big? “One of the oldest in the Cities…” Would it be OK to ask her to recommend a good place for lunch? Or would she think it was just because…. Doesn’t matter, because Patrick would die if I asked. “April is the busiest…”

We took one brochure with easy to read notes and left her with hearty thanks and a promise to come back soon. She gave us a business card.


When we got to the car we both closed the door and took a deep breath. “HO—–ly…” We leaned back in our seats and laughed and bemoaned the fact that my mom couldn’t be there with us, because other than ourselves, our mom is one of the few people who would have appreciated meeting this woman as much as we had.

Look, if my talking about her and being wowed by her has offended you, take comfort in a few things. First, while I was amazed, I wasn’t disgusted. I never thought, “What a slobberous pig, why doesn’t she have a fucking salad once in a while?” I didn’t assume she was stupid or lazy. I didn’t dislike her or avoid her.


Second, I can’t change this about myself. People are so interesting. And so different. But some are more interesting and different than others. She definitely fell into the “more than most” category.

Third, there are some people who make my day just by crossing my path. Superficial, trashy, base and mean, maybe. But I try hard not to stare, not to be mean and not to make commentary until I’m far away. These include, but are not limited to the morbidly obese, little people (oh how I love little people), the very tall, identical twins, Ubangis, the blind (but it’s OK to stare at them, right?) and anyone wearing either formal-wear or a full muslim veil.

And lastly, as usual, God (mr. Deity) wrought his revenge on me during lunch, so you can just be glad for that if you think I’m too mean. But that’s another story.

What Is This?

Look, you might as well know this, because it’s true and I’m sick of carrying it alone. Me, Ramon, my sisters, my brother, my whole family in a way, even people who you’d think wouldn’t have any business in this deal. We’re all still hampered. Does that go away? After a traumatic passage through sickness and death?

When will I stop wanting to explain to people that my mom died young and in front of us. When will my whole family stop feeling battered? When will the raw spot toughen up? It’s fading. That, I can tell. But I still feel like I walk with a limp, or I favor one arm and people can tell. I’ve still got the running monologue in my head, trying to make it all make sense, and coming up empty handed. Because it doesn’t make sense.

I had to have the conversation with my kids about euthanizing Yikes, the geriatric cat in the house. And in my defense, it’s time. She keeps us up all night scratching at the wall near our heads, yowling randomly and walking circles around our heads. Sometimes she stops to rest, draping herself across my neck or my head. I can sleep with her on my head, on my shoulder, even on my neck. But when she starts to lick me, which she always does at some point, I have to shove her away. Then she starts scratching at the wall near my head.

After a couple nights of sleep deprivation, I stopped loving her. If we lock her out, she’ll yowl and wake up the whole house. She’s just gone dotty. She sits staring at her feet. Misses her jumps, loses her footing… She isn’t the same cat. Lately she has seemed very unhappy, like she knows she’s not right, or she doesn’t feel good. The last two vet visits have found her healthy (for an 18 year old cat). They’ve also cost about a hundred fifty bucks each.

It shouldn’t be about the money, but it is. I don’t feel good spending hundreds of dollars on a very old unhappy animal, when I could send a whole flock of ducks to a family in Tibet for less than that. So I decide it ‘s time to prepare the children. Zach is understanding, Jasper’s not. The first time I bring it up he loses his mind and storms upstairs in tears.

When I go to his room to talk him down from the ledge, he is sobbing, face down on the bed. I sit down, rub his back and tell him I think she’s not feeling good because she’s crying a lot, and that she’s acting like she sees things, and she seems scared. I tell him that she’s very old for a cat and everything has to die. Our job, I explain, is to try do the best we can to make sure she doesn’t suffer.

After he cries for what seems like an hour, but is probably more like a mere fifty minutes, I try to talk to him again. This time he tells me, “It’s too soon mom. It’s too soon after Gramma died” He dissolves again. Yeah, it’s too soon.

It isn’t about my mom, it isn’t about the cat, and it is. Everywhere I go, when things get hard, or when they get good, or just at random times, I want to yell, “My mom is dead! We tried to take care of her, we did research, we bought vitamins, we lost sleep, lost weight, lost the battle, lost Susie. We tried really, really hard to be smarter and better than other families, listened to the doctors, questioned the doctors, followed our orders, tried harder than we’d ever tried before and SHE STILL DIED. And I still dream I’m trying to figure out how to make her better, and I feel the relief and sinking sadness that it doesn’t matter anymore as I start to wake up. And we’re still trying to figure out how to be a real family without her. We’ll probably never be whole again. Do you hear me?”

At the doctor’s office, at a basketball game, in meetings, at home… I feel like I need to tell everyone so they understand. Like it matters. Like they’re not carrying around their own traumas that they want to shout at me.

When is it no longer going to be an asterisk alongside everything I do, every interaction I have? Millions of normal people live to see their parents die. How do they get on with their lives? I haven’t been through war, torture, rape or a whole host of the unnatural horrors available on the menu of life. My mom got sick and died. And the whole world changed, and the whole world stayed the same. When do I get to move on?

I Love Anyway

Maybe you already know this. And maybe you can’t know it because it’s only true for me.

The things that I hated about my mom are the worst things about her sickness and death. The ways she wasn’t done getting to be perfect, or even happy. The things that oppressed me in her life are even sadder now that she’s gone.   I don’t miss her faults, but I think about them as much as I think about missing her.

That’s something I wasn’t prepared for. There’s no “If only she were here to give me the silent treatment one more time, I’d appreciate it more…” Not like that at all. Those irritating, dysfunctional things? I’m relieved I don’t have to deal with them again. I just wish we hadn’t wasted our time, I guess. Wish we’d laughed more.

So don’t think you’ll miss your mom hollering at you, “Jimmeeeee!” at 5am. You won’t. You won’t miss her forgetting your birthday every year, won’t miss her inappropriate humor, or her giggling with your sister and excluding you, or giving you the silent treatment, or throwing food, or feigning illness, or ignoring your spouse… those things don’t get sweet after someone dies, as far as I can tell. They just make you sadder.
I wonder if it’s particularly sad in my case, or her case, or whomever’s case we’re talking about. I wonder if she was really as dysfunctional as I felt she was. Or is every body dysfunctional and you just don’t know most people all that well. What do you think?

But let me tell you some things about my mom. You can’t love her as much as I did without knowing these things. Because (and this is theme in my life that gets me in trouble) somehow they made me love her more. Hope for her more, defend her more, take care of her more. I knew her, warts and all. And I loved her anyway. And writing it down isn’t worth a damn unless I can get that across.

If I can’t make someone who didn’t know her, read about her, pull for her, get frustrated with her, fight with her, puzzle over her, cry with her, talk about her, thank her, marvel at her, laugh at her, laugh with her, fear her and love her anyway; if I can’t do that, what’s the point?

So if you knew her, let me know if I’m being too hard on my mom. That’s my stupid tendency, to be too hard on the people I love the most. Just so the world knows I ‘m not blinded by love. In my family, if we’re not mean to you, we’ve either given up on you or we’re worried about your mental health. In those cases we’ll be mean to you when you walk out of the room.

Which , let me tell you, can contribute to troubles in the mental health area. I’m not saying the whole arrangement was or is healthy. But it is what it is.

But back to my mom. I think my dad said it best when he said, “With your mom, the thing is, you’d wonder which Susie would be waiting for you when you came home.” Oh so true. To say she had mood swings is to be gentle and generous. I think of them, and you know what? I think, “But I loved her so much”. How dumb. Anyway, he had it right.

Really I think she went through periods where she was insane. Does everyone do that? I’m still trying to figure that out. I can’t decide which would be worse: Having her be just about as crazy as the average Joe, or having her be deeply troubled.

She could carry a grudge like few women I’ve known. Go for months living in the same house with someone, but not talking to them unless she had to. I think my senior year she had been in a silent phase with my step-dad for about 9 months. It got so stressful I went to stay with my dad for a while so I could study. Unless you’ve lived with people who are fighting (if that’s the word for it), you can’t imagine how icky it is.

I found out later, if she had to walk by him, she’d whisper, “I hate you.” under her breath. He slept in a chair in the TV room. For months.

In the middle of a normal conversation, her voice could shift, turn icy, and you knew you were in deep shit. The only way out was to admit you had been either thoughtless, careless, mean or stupid. If you wanted true and lasting forgiveness, the only way out was to confess to being depressed, crabby, jealous or secretly angry. The surest way out was to confess that you were being mean because you were jealous. You were jealous because you were unhappy in your relationship with your husband, kid… someone else. And if you told her enough details about this other troubled relationship, she might chastise you for your mean stupidity, but she wouldn’t stay mad.

We learned early on that “sorry isn’t enough.” But “I did it on purpose because I’m jealous that she’s prettier than me, and she always will be and I wanted to hurt her” was good enough.

And she drank. As a child, I can’t remember her drinking to excess. But adults aren’t people to kids. They’re landmarks. I don’t think I would have known if it was a problem. But once I got to be an adult, and she started to fall down the stairs, and hide liquor around the house… I noticed. She stopped inviting us kids to events with her family, we decided finally, it was because she didn’t feel comfortable drinking around us.

Trouble with the drink runs in her (my) family. But it didn’t kill her, like I thought it might.  When she lied to the doctor about whether she had ever been a heavy drinker, I had this terrible dilemma.  Do I pull the doctor aside and say, “She’s lying to you.  Does it matter?” or do I let her drive her own life?  I decided it probably didn’t matter.  It probably didn’t. But I feel bad for her shame.  She knew I noticed the lie.  I didn’t correct her, didn’t call her on it.
And she lied. Oh my god, my mom lied a lot. Lied about big things, lied about little things. Lied about whether there were onions in dinner (there always were). Lied about drinking, lied about smoking (I still don’t know how much), lied about sex,  about money.

she was deeply troubled, she was also deeply gifted. It was worth the trouble.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses probably saved her life, if not her everlasting soul. If she hadn’t answered the door, covered in blood, who knows how things would have turned out. There seemed to be some concern for her safety even once she was in the hospital because they had armed guards outside her room.

I had some warning from her dad and his girlfriend that she’d be coming around. Otherwise she would probably have seemed like just another mouthy kid with too much attitude. If they hadn’t warned me that she was leaving the hospital with scars from hundreds of stitches, I would have had pause, I guess. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have believed her rehearsed answer, “I was in a bicycle accident and I don’t want to talk about it.”

Her dad’s girlfriend wanted to be sure I didn’t coddle her or expect her to be the little survivor the newspapers made her out to be.

She was still just a kid, “And Lisa, that child is trouble. Believe me, I know how she is. Even after what she been through. Don’t let her make you feel sorry for her. She got to live in this world.”

Well, the newspaper accounts didn’t exactly paint her as a sweet little victim child either. I read between the lines even before I knew she’d be living down the street. The nurses talked about her, “fighting spirit, feisty and stubborn nature, even after all she’d been through.” We went and bought flowers for her and sent themwith her dad to her hospital room.

She played with the other kids on the block, but not quite with them. My front yard with the two big, fat rope swings hanging from the maple tree always had a magnetic quality. There were actual playgrounds less than a block away in two directions, but the tree swings and the porch made my house kid-central. That and the Band-Aids and water and occasional snacks. But no way would you mistake her for just another kid.

Neither did the kids. They knew bullshit when they heard it. Maybe some of them knew the real story, maybe they didn’t. But from my perch on the steps I heard enough of them muttering about how those marks “weren’t from no bike accident, no way.” Or how the scars on her scalp, looked like when their cousin had the ringworm. They weren’t gentle with her, whatever they knew. The collective wisdom of children has no mercy on the traumatized.

And she could take it. Her attitude was almost never one of victim. What it seemed like, and how they treated her was like she thought she was better than them. It didn’t make her any friends. And her superiority didn’t keep her from starting to cry when it was her turn to get off the good swing. She was way to old too cry about that, and it wasn’t a sad cry. It was an angry kind of crying that made her turn her back on everyone until it was over.

She was difficult. But I knew the story, and no matter what anyone said, I cut her slack. I hugged her, admired her new hairdos and let her come and sit next to me on the steps which she liked to do as much as anything else. For God’s sake, she saw her mother stabbed to death and now she had to live with her dad in a rented room. Of course I felt sorry for her. This girlfriend of her dad’s was unable to see past her own inconvenience to open her heart to the child. You bet your ass I coddled her. Most of the time.

Compromise was not part of her repertoire. It frustrated me, and I had to hold the line on her a couple of times. That made her mad. Sometimes she stormed home to her dad’s house. But she always came back.

For all her injuries, by some miracle (probably by the miracle of self defense) most of the stab wounds were on her scalp and her arms, almost none on her face. She was still a beautiful child. And her mom loved her, but didn’t live long enough to save her life. What saved her life was being stubborn, playing dead and either luck or divine intervention.

Little Girl (the rest of the story)


Read this, what I have so far. Tell me if it’s interesting enough that you want to know the rest:

Berneeta and John Henry. By the time I knew them, they were old. I remember them coming over for Thanksgiving dinners, her doting on him and him towering over her, even as hunched as he was. I once asked my dad, in all seriousness, “Why do you think Granny and Grampy don’t fight?”. This wasn’t a commentary on my mom and dad’s relationship, it was genuine puzzlement. And to be fair, they did bicker, I remember hearing tell of it, but I never saw it. Kids see different things.

My dad sighed. At the time it seemed like he was bored with my chatter. “Well I suppose they’re both old enough to know it doesn’t do any good.”

Much of what I know about my Grampy Dunn is based on the various artworks we inherited. As far as I can tell, he had impeccable taste which I inherited. Grampy loved little glass blobs, he loved chandelier pendants, loved anything in gilt. His sculptures and paintings are something you’d have to see to believe. The one I remember best, which I think was tragically lost at some point, was a picture of either the UnitedStates with glass blobs in key cities, or it might have been a tooth, roots and all, with glass blobs for accent, or to represent cavities. It depended on which way you hung it, portrait or landscape style.

I know very, very little about Granny Dunn. All that survives to me is her pronunciation of the word Fabulous, which was “fab-a-liss”. I know my Grampy called her Little Girl until the day she died. Legend has it that she treated John Henry’s skin lesions (cancer) for years with witch hazel.

They lived in Edina across the street from a park, in a place where horses still sometimes came trotting up the streets. It was quiet, just the kind of place Great-grandparents should live. They drove a Lincoln or a Cadillac, or some other kind of boat of a car.

My aunt Martha used to go over once or twice a week. She picked up groceries and drove them to doctor appointments. She listened to Berneeta complain about John Henry and to John Henry tell the same stories over and over. She checked the supply of pink-perfumed toilet paper and witch hazel, noting what needed re-stocking.

As an aside, there’s your evolutionary advantage for spinster aunts, lesbians, bachelor uncles and gay men in the family. They’re the ones who take care of the elderly and the sick while their procreative-sex-crazed, child-saddled counterparts are busy making and rearing children. If not for them, the pull between caring for one’s parents or one’s kids might tip towards the elderly, leaving the children unmade, unfed and generally neglected. (Oops, did I digress again?)

Well Martha went over to do her Christian work of mercy and she couldn’t get them to answer the door. Her stomach sank. This was bad. Because the only time Granny and Grampy went anywhere it was because Martha took them. She did a quick mental calculation. Nope, she hadn’t taken them anywhere. She went to the window to their bedroom and peeked in.

What she could see didn’t make her feel better. She could only see part of granny’s leg on the bed. That leg didn’t move, even when she knocked on the window. But something in that room moved, just a little.


What she could see didn’t make her feel better. She saw granny’s leg on the bed. Even when she knocked on the window that leg didn’t move. But something in that room moved, just a little.


After panicking, pacing, knocking and fretting, she went to a neighbor’s house and called the police who came and helped her break in. The house was dark and quiet. You know when someone has been sleeping all night and half the day in a room with the door closed, the smell? Kind of sweet, funky and icky old air smelling? The whole house smelled like that. It made Martha gaggy.

In their plushly carpeted, sheerly curtained bedroom it smelled worse. The sweet sleepy breath smell met up with a sick ammonia smell and something else. The cop called for paramedics as soon as he hit the door. He had done this before.

Martha could hear grampy whimpering and mumbling. “Grampy? Granny? It’s Martha.” It took everything she had to approach the bed, because it was becoming clear that Granny was dead. She had been dead for a while, more than a day.

“Oh Martha! I was sleeping and having the most terrible dream. I seem to be a mess here, but I just couldn’t get up and I kept having this dream. I was with a little girl…Oh the poor thing. She fell into the water, the little girl. She fell into the water and she was so cold. I was holding onto her, but I just couldn’t warm her up. She was so cold, and I couldn’t get her warm.”

He was delirious and dehydrated, laying next to his dead wife. She had been dead more than a day and he was unable to get out of bed. Granny had always been in charge of making sure he got up and going.

He went into the hospital where he lived only about a week. My aunt Berneeta came into town from Louisiana to be here for Grampy and the rest of the family. My mom’s family was always too hard on Berneeta. I think because she was always just a little too earnest, trying too hard. The harder she tried, the more people laughed at her. With slightly knocked knees and a voice that carried like a tropical bird, she was an easy mark. She was also serious and awkward, which in my family is just begging for trouble. On top of it all, she had a child who died, which I think made the family want to treat her as ‘other’. They would probably never admit that, but I think it might be true.

Berneeta (the younger) sat with Grampy in the hospital while he died. Family lore has it that she put lotions on his hands and massaged them while speaking quietly to him. Sometimes she wasn’t so quiet, she got worked up about being there for Grampy. It was during those times she could be heard down the hospital hall, telling Grampy, while massaging his hands with lotion, “I’m right here Grampy… Grampy, I’m here to help you over to the other side. I’m here with you. Berneeta’s here, Grampy, I’ll help you over.”

To this day, people in my family snicker about massaging people’s hands and helping them over to the other side. And when my mom was dying, my brother said to her, “Mom, I can make you one promise. If Berneeta shows up, I’m not gonna let her fucking touch you. She will not be helping you over to the other side as long as I’m around.” It made the corners of my mom’s mouth turn up, which was all we wanted out of a day with her.

The problem is, that when Berneeta showed up, Patrick started to get belligerent with her and everyone in the family. He said my mom didn’t want her around and he was going to keep his promise. He said my mom didn’t want Bern to remember her as a sick person. But Berneeta just wanted to hug her sister once more before she died. Eventually we all pulled rank on Patrick, but it wasn’t easy. Because he was deadly serious about it. It wasn’t a family joke anymore.