Porch Stories

That back porch could tell you some stories. It’s a porch that was good for licking melting ice-cream cones and sipping gin & tonics from tall glasses. It’s a porch where, as a young girl, I spent hours reading every book I could get my hands on, escaping into the thick forests of Narnia or sitting in a crowded courtroom with Scout Finch. It’s the place where I sulked and stewed, indignant that my parents would not let me go to town with my friends, forcing upon me an unjust incarceration in my own home. It’s a porch where sheets have been hung out to dry, in any and every season. I’ve swept its long, thin boards and shoveled snow from them more times than I can count. This porch I have shared with my family all of my life, an extension off the back of our home like a giant cradle where good things could and did happen, its balustrade like teeth in the smile of a happy childhood.

I remember a Saturday, last May, sitting alone on this back porch, steeped in an after-everything feeling. My mother was gone. She’d been buried for months, but now that her memorial service was behind us, it felt real in a way it hadn’t before. The house had been ordered and cleaned, the refrigerator emptied of everything but ketchup, pickles and a few jars of jam. The doors were locked, the alarm was set, and my ride had just called to say he was approximately thirty miles away, in a town with a name he mispronounced marvelously. I did not mind that traffic had delayed him; this gave me a little pocket of contemplative time.

I pulled out my journal and seated myself in one of the wicker rocking chairs on the porch, facing out over the grove of trees along the border of the property. It used to be you could see the lake beyond the thick of trees. Now the hedge is taller, fuller – as is every living thing that’s grown behind it – and the view, though still lovely, no longer includes the lake.

Just as I put the pen to paper, I had a flash, a sense of something different, something distinct from the sadness and grief that I’d known for the last many months. For a brief set of seconds, not even ten, I felt free. The feeling wrapped itself around me, singing a light song to lure me in and then, as quickly as it came, it slipped away.

It made me a little bit giddy, jumpy, kind of electric. Giddy like I felt that first day on campus, wandering around the cobblestone streets near my university. The sun was setting but I was rising, my whole life ahead, and this great collegiate opportunity about to launch me into it.

Or standing on the Metro North platform, after leaving the keys to my apartment on a table inside before closing the door behind me. I’d sold my car to a woman, a stranger, who then drove me to the station to go to New York for a quick overnight before flying to Europe – to live. I had with me only three suitcases and a red wide-brimmed hat. I giggled out loud as the train rushed into the station, the wind from its passage fierce against me as I held the hat firm on my head.

Or giddy like the first night in my first Parisian apartment, listening to Miles Davis with a bottle of Burgundy, or the Indian summer weekend I moved into my second Paris apartment, unpacking boxes and listening to a mixed tape given to me by a younger De-facto, wondering if the next time I moved house it might be with him beside me.

The thread in all these giddy moments: I had just let go, but I had not yet grabbed on to what would be next. That next was still unknown or unclear, and yet – and there was trust involved – ripe with promise. The prevailing thought: What can happen now? Anything.

~ ~ ~

When I was in college I slipped away one long weekend to take part in a seminar that was an offshoot of the Werner Erhardt personal growth movement. The reasons I was compelled to go are better left for another post, or it suffices to say that I’d taken my sophomore slump a little too seriously. The workshop did me a lot of good. A few of my friends remained involved in the program, but I was done after attending two levels. I couldn’t afford it on a student’s stipend and the pressure to proselytize, though not overbearing, was implicit enough to put up red flags warning me to keep my distance.

I remember going home to tell my father about the workshop. I wanted to express to him how it had changed me, how I felt so much more alive and in touch with myself. He interrupted me, reminding me of the occasion when I had eaten, in its entirety, my first Big Mac.

It was on the way to summer camp Yaiewano, circa 1972. The challenge must have been issued when I had pronounced it impossible. Not that my father was so interested in my consumption of a special-sauced hamburger, but I imagine he was trying to teach me something about setting and preparing for a goal, or turning an idea once considered implausible into something entirely feasible.

“Your Big Mac story,” he said to me, in that voice of his that could be comforting and frightening at the same time, “is one of many stories that you will have in your life, as is the story of this seminar. I hope you make the most of every single one.”

He was expert at having the last word.

But he was right. It’s easy to tell yourself a story and then begin to believe it’s your only one. Sometimes when it feels like Short-pants’ hospital story comes up too frequently I tell her just what my father told me. It is an important story, one that changed her life irrevocably, but it’s not her only story. I want her to know that. I want her to own that.

~ ~ ~

A thoughtful reader sent me an email, this week, with an excerpt from The Love Queen of Malabar, a memoir about the friendship between its author, Canadian Merrily Weisbord and the Indian poet Kamala Das. The timing – that this fell in front of me while I was musing on the subject of stories and freedom – was uncanny. This passage especially:

A writer moves away from family, old relationships, very far with the speed of a falling star,” she says. “Otherwise the writer is destroyed, and only the member of the family remains: the mother, sister, daughter, wife. The writer at some point must ask, do I want to be a well-loved member of the family? Or do I want to be a good writer? You can’t be both at the same time.”

I often wonder about this. Except it was the shock and awe of having children that (finally) propelled me to get serious about writing. My earlier story ideas languished, but the manuscript about the paradox of motherhood is the one that is (nearly) done. The number of posts I’ve written about my mother is growing out of control, but her departure from this earth provoked a stream of words from me like nothing before in my life. These roles of mother and daughter have not inhibited my word count.

But have I told the truth, the real truth, my truth? Not entirely, and I probably won’t, as long as my partner and children and siblings are alive and can read what I’ve written. That’s not out of fear, it’s out of respect.

Still, there is a shift now that my mother has joined my father in the land of gone. Sad as I am, I am also free. I was never deliberately constrained by her, but as long as she was alive, her influence was present. It wasn’t a conscious, I couldn’t write that, what would she think? kind of influence – if anything, I carved out a good portion of my identity by doing exactly what my parents thought I should not do. But therein lies the kernel. Some part of me has always been his child, her daughter. Now that they are gone, I am free to do as I please without worrying them, free to be who I am, without pleasing or displeasing them, free to write the story that is mine, unencumbered. Not that there is something so terrible to tell, or that I couldn’t have written already for them to see. But now, free of their reaction or judgment – negative or positive – the core stories within me are mine to tell.

This is what comes to me, then, after reading every post I’ve written during the Reverb10 challenge to reflect on the last year of my life. It’s as if I am once again alone on that back porch, staring out at the trees, wondering how it is they grew so tall. Let go. Grab on. What can happen now? Anything.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Molly O’Neill: Prompt: Core story. What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.)

12 Responses to “Porch Stories”

  • Caroline Fraley Says:

    Wow, this was great. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you. You were writing as if you were skipping all the way down the page!

    I also learnt and your words made me aware of one positive thing about my own parents which I had never considered so far as a positive thing: the fact that they set me free from the start by their lack of interest, engagement and expectations from me and my life. They genuinely don’t care what I do as long as I am not hurt and I seem happy – so their own mind can be at peace… For the first time, I see this as a gift I should be grateful for, not a burden, a source of pain, frustration and despair. Thank you, that is a big revelation for me.

  • Virginia Gowen Says:

    I know I should spew off something literary here but what you really need to know is that your blog is the only healthy addiction I have in life. It is one of the nicest things I do for myself….waiting until I can savor the deliciousness of it without interruption. You bring me into the light.

  • geekymummy Says:

    wow, you are a stunning writer! Thats all!

  • Amanda Leduc Says:

    And here I am, sitting in my parents’ house, worrying that my current lack of financial stability has delivered me into my parents’ hands forevermore. (Cue the melodrama of the young.) Weisbord’s words also strike me as uncanny. And they’ve already lessened the guilt that I’m feeling at this insistent desire to leave, be gone, to jump on a plane again and be as far from my family as possible, wonderful though they are.

    Thank you — you’ve reminded me once again that I am not entirely terrible to feel this way. That it might, in fact, just be part of the journey.

  • Melanie Says:

    Wow – What a post! You are a very good writer, it felt like we were sitting on the porch with you while you were sharing your story.

    Your post has opened my mind to a new perspective on the passing of loved ones. Thank you thank you thank you for sharing this.

  • Helga Says:

    Still working through it all…thinking of you as a new year begins! Best of wishes as you get through these moments…

  • magpie Says:

    Anything can indeed happen. I’m wondering about the Metro
    North reference though. Where’d you live, when?

  • Violet Says:

    Such a powerful piece of writing. I just wanted to say
    thanks. It has set me thinking about my own relationship with that
    “free” feeling.

  • Lee Says:

    You plumb the depths of us all so deftly and with such truth and respect…
    Only today I handled again some things my mother left me when she died 8 years ago – so hard to part with them, even to understand what they mean to me – a handmade crocheted tablecloth, a vintage fur…and I sense that feeling of freedom I also experienced— and now whisper to her again, tell her things I may never have when she was alive.

  • Elizabeth Marie Says:

    First, I have to tell you that I laughed when I read that you laughed as you clutched your red hat. That’s how vivid that section was (the whole post was/is). Second, every time I read one of your posts that includes something about your mother’s death or your mother at all, it’s different, new, she is new, you are new, in way, I am new. Third, that quote is so interesting. I am on the edge of sharing parts of a novel with my sister. I suppose what I’m doing is inviting her into my creative world. I’ve kept my family out, though I talk about the process with them (they love me but think I’m a little crazy). So. That quote…it’s interesting. It makes me pay attention to the fact that I am the ONLY one of my siblings who moved away permanently from our “home” state. GAH! I feel like I want to write this to you in email. But, eh, it’s all right if other people read it. They don’t know me and won’t be able to point their fingers at me on the street, shake them and say, “There’s that long-winded dork who bothers MD.”

  • Amanda Says:

    This was incredible. That passage about a writer brings a rush of memories with my mentor, he said similar words to me one day about a story I was trying to tell. It wasn’t the right story and we both knew it, but he was focused more on my ability to write. He was guiding me to break off for the freedom it would afford. How fascinating to read your ruminations on an incredibly difficult time and find that you found liberation and some measure of…joy? Hope? Whatever it was, it further cemented my crush on you.

  • Marinera76 Says:

    It’s a rainy Sunday and I got trapped into reading your blog with late breakfast. I savour reading your blog and I like that there’s always some older post that I missed and seems to come to me at the right time. Like opening a book in the middle and see if there’s something there for you. Thank you for this story, very useful advice also (about the single story). I watched a TedTalk last summer about just that:”the danger of a single story” 🙂 have a nice Sunday!

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