One October when I was eight, I made gravestones of me and my family. Perhaps I had a fascination with death. Perhaps I wanted to feel the stickiness of glue between my thumb and forefinger and the permanence of a Sharpie in my hand. I asked my mother to buy grey and brown construction paper—grey for the headstone, brown for the dirt—so I could make them and place them against our foyer wall so trick-or-treaters could see them when they approached the front door.
I grabbed one of my old wallet-sized school pictures and glue-sticked it to the grey construction paper underneath where I had put my name and birth and death dates in black permanent marker. I made one for my mother, father, and two younger brothers. I even made one for the dog. By the time my mother figured out what I was doing, it was too late. The paper gravestones were taped along the very bottom of the wall, the brown paper taped to the scratched hardwood floor directly in front. When my mother saw them all she said was, “I don’t like that.”
“But it’s decoration,” I said. “For Halloween.”
To me, they were as spooky and brilliant as my mother’s orangey-yellow glittering pumpkins she set up on the coffee table or the purple and black-clothed witch with the oversized boil on her crooked nose that sat on the bay window ledge.
“I don’t like seeing that,” she repeated.
“Well, I like it, so it’s staying,” I said, proud of my art.
But when I came home from school the next day, my art was gone. You could faintly see where the tape marks left diagonal lines of dirt from the day before.
I don’t remember what my mother said when I asked her where she had put my gravestones, except that it was probably as vague as what she told me the previous day when she first saw them.
Perhaps seeing her family all lined in a neat and tidy row at the bottom of a wall made her feel small. Perhaps she didn’t want to be reminded every morning when she’d walk past the foyer into the kitchen for her morning coffee that we would all end up at the bottom of a wall, beneath a floor, sinking further and further away from this earth. Perhaps it was just too soon.
“Too soon,” she said about a decade later when my father died at forty-five.
“Too soon,” she said two years after that when my grandmother died at sixty-eight.
Too soon. Too soon.
But these realities are everywhere in her home. She just masquerades them as something else.
In that same foyer is a staircase my father built that leads to the second floor. Photo frames hang in a diagonal line that ascend or cascade depending on which direction you’re going on the staircase. One diagonal line that runs parallel to the staircase has individual 8×10 frames of me and my two brothers. The other three or four lines hold various sized frames of my grandparents at my aunt’s wedding, my brother and one my cousins when they were about four in the Azores, a black and white photograph of my great-grandparents before they immigrated. It is a collage of family and life.
But all I see is a graveyard. A graveyard with its bony, dripping, crusty claws outstretched trying to grip another photo frame.
Every time I visit my mother, I’ll take a moment to lie on the cat-scratched twenty-year-old couch with my hands folded underneath my head and stare at the staircase wall. And then I’ll count the faces in my head.
Dead, dead, dead, alive, dead, alive, alive, dead.
No matter what, it’s always too soon for the living to turn dead.
Sarah Chaves is a 28-year-old Portuguese-American writer who strives to bring another strong female voice to the Portuguese literary world. In 2007, her father died in a car accident while her family was vacationing in the Azores, and since then, she has been working on a memoir that details her experience in the context of a grief and coming-of-age narrative. She completed the first draft during the 2015-2016 year as a Fulbright Scholar in Portugal and is now revising the second draft at Grub Street as part of the year-long Memoir Incubator Workshop.
Georgia O’Keefe, 1916
Georgia, it’s been one hundred years
since you stood in the dark Texas dawn
and marveled at the multicolored haze
clouding toward you down the track.
You thought the rest of your life
would unspool from Canyon, Texas.
You wrote Alfred Stieglitz that you saw
the train, thought of him, and blazed.
You had never even been to New Mexico.
I think of you, so young out on the stark
gray sand, the oncoming train glittering
alive and black, its light fixed upon you
like a sun, like an eye
seeing what no one else can see.
Amie Sharp’s poems have appeared in Atticus Review, Badlands, the Bellevue Literary Review, New Plains Review, and Tar River Poetry, among others. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her manuscript Flare was a semifinalist for the Crab Orchard First Book Award. She lives in Colorado.
Mary had the perfect imperfection, a small space in between her two front teeth, like Madonna or Lauren Hutton. It was just what I needed, a flaw, to help me focus every fear I had of feeling happy. Happy felt like another solar system – a curious and desired destination, I suppose, and yet unwelcome. Nothing good could come of wanting something that could be taken away because it always was. My nervous system still clawed its way through every day since two men had broken into my apartment four years prior and attacked me. Most days, I thought I was really a ghost observing the life I was meant to have if only they had climbed through a different window that night.
With Mary, I smiled easily, told funny stories, and serenaded her with Billie Holiday songs lying naked in bed. My voice copied sultry well enough. I was not at ease, but hid it well. Her optimism was deep enough to hold us both.
So there sat that small space. I suppose I could see the beautiful smile that held it. Or, I could see a young girl, one of eleven children whose father died when she was a teenager and left her mother impoverished and unprepared. Dentistry was out of the question. I could see the beauty of that space and all that held it in a long life of challenge or I could just see the space. If I focused hard enough on it, I might be safe keeping company with the flaw and believed it could help me flee if I needed to.
Early on, Mary was fifteen minutes late for a date with me and I gave her a stern lecture on punctuality. Another time, she had two beers at dinner, not one but two. Since I didn’t drink and my step father drank too much, I decided she must be an alcoholic and I almost broke up with her on the spot.
She teased! She forgot people’s names! She didn’t always get me!
I loved and needed that imperfection. I needed every single thing about Mary that I could put in my pocket to help me escape from the joy/loss possibility that is a real relationship. We moved in together, bought a house, made financial decisions about each of our graduate programs and then had kids. As the years went on, and I allowed each happiness in, I took every carefully collected imperfection and held them in my hand like a snow globe, shaking it about wildly, the flaws overtaking the scene for but a moment and then settling down harmless.
When Mary was in her forties, she decided to close up the space by wearing invisible braces for a year. She said she was tired of wearing her childhood poverty on her face. By then, I didn’t worry what I would do without it. It had served us both rather well in a life we built together in spite of the odds.
Michelle Bowdler has been published in the New York Times and has two upcoming essays in a book entitled: We Rise to Resist: Voices from a New Era in Women’s Political Action (McFarland 2018). Her essay entitled Eventually, You Tell Your Kids (Left Hooks Literary Journal) was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The Rumpus recently published her poem A Word With You as part of their series Enough! on sexual assault and rape culture. Michelle is a 2017 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for Non-Fiction, will be a Fellow at Ragdale this winter and is a Boston GrubStreet Incubator alum. (https://michelle-bowdler.com/)