The Dead Never Stop Talking



The dead never stop talking.

On my trip to the eye doctor this afternoon I drove through my small town as the high school spit out students onto the curved asymmetrical streets. Cliques of girls waited at crosswalks for the signal that indicates it’s ok to cross; in this town that signal is the white outline of a figure like the sort you see on police dramas chalked around a dead body.

Watching the girls I hear my mother, dead twenty years, say, “You’re not leaving the house like that.”

If I were the guardian of a girl child, she would hate me. I would not allow her out of the house wearing shorts so short the underside of her butt cheeks, lighter-skinned than the rest of her exposed flesh, peeks out, jiggles even, as she strolls down the street.

The girls not wearing shorts go for skin-tight jeans, and tank tops with visible bra straps, and perky cleavage so in your face you can’t look away.

Is my town a town of motherless children? Or is that battle not worth the effort? Pick your battles, my sister says. Easy for her to say. She has a 13-year-old girl child who has no interest in short shorts, or skin tight jeans. Her daughter’s wardrobe consists almost entirely of black yoga-type pants and oversized Marvel t-shirts. She doesn’t obsess about her looks. Not yet, anyway.

The girls at the crosswalk are slightly older. I wonder if that’s the difference. My niece will start high school next September.

At the eye doctor’s office my chin is cradled, and my forehead pressed against the metal headrest. An intensely bright light glides across my right eye. I try not to blink. I am thinking of germs, of contagion, and all the people who have pressed their faces into this contraption before me, when unexpectedly, the doctor, whom I’m seeing for the first time, rolls his stool closer. His crotch presses against my knees. I attempt to pull my knees back, but I have nowhere to move.

The doctor’s female assistant sits inches away. Surely he didn’t intentionally press his genitals against my knees. He makes no effort to alter his position. I have long legs; his are short. It must be that.

The words of my dead grandmother float through the bright light: “Always sit like a lady, with your knees together.”

She never considered knee fetishes.

On my return through town a cluster of short shorts and bra straps sit cross-legged on the lawn in the small plaza. A dark-haired girl pulls up an errant strap while a pale blonde rearranges a jacket beneath her bare thighs on the cold grass.

If her grandfather were alive he’d encourage my niece to become an engineer. He’d hoped one of his six daughters might follow in his footsteps, but none have. His granddaughter certainly has the smarts for it. She and her crowd are nerds. Her word, not mine. It’s impossible to say whether she’ll start wearing short shorts in a year, much less predicting where her talents will lead her.

My sister, like our father, tells her daughter that she will go to college. She pronounces it as fact, as our father did.

The dead never stop talking.

A sort of journal entry… I hope to keep it up… we’ll see how that works out…

A Sacrifice on the Altar of Parenthood



I was fourteen on the night I was bushwhacked by my father as he sat sipping his Seagrams 7 and 7-Up in the unlighted living room.

I tiptoed downstairs in the dark with the intent of reaching the basement, where the television lured with its single channel, WGAL-TV 8 (NBC). (In our household WGAL entertained, including our mother, seven “gals,” our father rounding it off to 8 viewers in the household, as if we were preeminent in the station’s study of its demographics.)

I tiptoed hoping to avoid any chance encounter with a parent. A couple of my sisters had preceded me downstairs, and all I wanted was to negotiate for space on the couch, knowing that would require a fair amount of pushing, pulling and pinching, before settling in to watch the antics of James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock.

I did not see my father sitting in the dark. I did not hear the clink of ice cubes rearranging themselves in his glass, so common a sound that perhaps I no longer heard it.

Slurring his words, he beckoned to me. “Steph, c’mere a minute.” Explaining that Captain Kirk waited for no one would be futile. I did what I was told.

I slumped next to him in the dark living room. My drunken father placed an arm around my shoulders, and, deeming it the best possible moment to enlighten me as to the limitless happiness he experienced when I was born, he said: “You were the first. I knew I could do it. The rest didn’t matter.”

I knew he didn’t mean he loved my sisters less, only that never again did he experience that jolt of joy as he did when I popped out healthy and whole. Been there done that.

Not for the first time, with fourteen years experience of my father’s parenting techniques, I thought: there are people in the world not cut out to be parents. My father was one of those people.

I may be another, possibly due, in part, to that particular evening.

I receive both sympathy and criticism for not having had children. In my travels, particularly in rural areas of the Third World, it was always the first question from friendly, curious women: “How many children do you have?” In India and Indonesia, these women stroked my hair, and told me how sorry they were that I was unable to birth children. Never would it occur to them that it was a conscious choice. Or, if not exactly a choice, an absence, of that maternal pull that enveloped so many women, and pitched them into paroxysms of grief if they are unable to conceive. I have not experienced that particular heartache.

I had a prescription for contraceptives, and eventually married a man who’d had a vasectomy before we met.

There are some, mostly women, who believe women like me are selfish. We are not willing to sacrifice aspects of our lives to raise a child. I’ve read this many times on mommy blogger sites, heard it shouted by pundits on quasi-news shows.

In 2007, Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for her novel, The Gathering. It’s a dark, but beautifully rendered evocation of family, and grief. In it the main character resents her parents for having too many children. Unaware and unthinking they never considered the consequences of their selfish behavior on all those children.

Reading this was a revelation. Finally, someone put into print, the equivalent of speaking aloud, something I’d felt for a long time.

Because you want something doesn’t mean you ought to have it. I have a friend who suffers from severe, debilitating anxiety. It’s in her family, in her DNA. She and her husband would like to have a child of their own, but have made the decision not to, for the child’s sake, not the mother’s. They won’t take the chance of having a son or daughter experience the turmoil the would-be mother has endured throughout her life.

How do you feel about the Duggars exploiting their 19 kids on a reality show to pay the bills? How do you feel about the older kids raising the younger kids because the parents lack the time, and the energy?

Those who choose not to have kids, whatever their reason, or however it came to pass ought to be celebrated, not criticized for our lack of ability, according to someone’s standards, to “sacrifice” our selfish lifestyles. We’re a counterbalance to those who have too many kids. Yes, there is such a thing as having too many kids.

So many parents have kids for the wrong reasons. My father had his first kid as evidence of his sperms’ macho motility. The rest came along with little thought. My mother was very young, very fertile, and Catholic.

The childless by choice are not lazy, or selfish. The child bearers are not self-indulgent at the expense of their kids. Or are we, or are they?

One thing I do know is that I’m an awesome Aunt. If any of you moms feel you’ve been sacrificing too much send your darlings to me for a summer break. I’m happy to sacrifice my summer for their enjoyment. As my nieces will tell you we have a blast!

Deer in the Headlights – A True Story

©Michael Cummings
©Michael Cummings


On the night my father woke me in the middle of the night, ordered me to get dressed, and follow him, I was fourteen. I am the oldest of six daughters, and therefore was the obvious choice. Whining about the late hour would not have occurred to me.

I retrieved from the floor the shorts and tee shirt I had earlier shed. It was a warm, humid night. A patina of sweat showed itself on my skin, as if curious what I might be doing out so late of a summer’s night.

Both of us staggering, my father from booze, and me tripping over the blanket of sleep that I had not the good sense to let drop, we reached the barn. As I was hitching the wagon to the riding mower, as instructed, my father jumped into his white Corvair, and drove off down the quarter mile dirt road that delivered the unsuspecting to our property. With no moon, and no light on the mower, I tracked the Corvair’s red taillights.

Halfway down the road he stopped. Stumbling in the car’s headlights my father found what he was looking for: a dead deer. Instantly, I understood what had transpired between my father, and this unfortunate animal. Driving home from the bar, he’d caught the deer in the proverbial headlights. It froze. Envisioning meat on the grill, he ran over him.

Where was my mother? Visiting her mother? A girlfriend? Such visits were rare. But, on this night she was missing, or she would have appeared to rescue me, aware as she was of my sensitivity toward woodland creatures. My five sisters slept soundly on the third floor of our old brick house, blissfully unaware of events unfolding.

I helped my father lift the warm body of the deer into the wagon.

Minutes later I said no to my father for the first time in my life. I would not hold a hoof while he sliced it off. He heard me. Long after the bars had closed, I found myself in the basement of our house trying not to hear my father hacking at the haunches of a deer.

Sitting cross-legged behind a folding door, my job was to wrap the chunks in white butcher paper. With each plop of warm meat, hardly daring to look, I slapped a piece of masking tape on the package, and tossed it into the freezer behind me.

An hour into the midst of this nightmare, my father suddenly shouted, “Shit!” And the room flooded with the smell of it. He had sliced into the intestines.

The Polaroid I snapped with the old camera I found on a shelf near the freezer was entirely inadequate to the details.

For years my father embroidered the story with flourishes and colored threads.

I am content to dwell in the fading images. Like what happened to the carcass. Was I required to help my father drag the bones to the field?

I don’t want to remember.



Written for Write on Edge prompt: “When images become inadequate, I’ll shall be content with silence.” Ansel Adams





Some are born with an innate sense of purpose, responsibility, and determination. Add to that a father’s stolid example. A father who everyday of his life rose from his heaped quilts, trudged to the barn, fed the animals before he fed himself.

His father had not expected him to hoe the same fields, to rise before dawn, turn the key in the tractor, eat a sandwich alone in the dust of newly plowed furrow.

“This is no way of life, boy,” he’d told him more than once, more than twice.

But he was his father’s son. How could he rebel against such an example? His father had never nagged him to get of bed, never begrudged him a day off when teenage angst had got the better of him. Most of all, when it came time to choose his livelihood, he had not dissuaded him from his college curriculum of animal husbandry, sustainable agriculture, plant and soil systems.

The son made changes. He alternated acres, planted drought resistant crops. He cut out pesticides, introduced bees, installed drip irrigation. His father, always open to the son’s modern methods, let his boy take over, performed those tasks his son required.

Mornings father and son leaned at the kitchen sink sipping coffee in an awkward silence. The son questioned that unease, never could figure out what they lacked, why there was no shared language. Love dwelled in that silence. That much was plain. That much he knew. He believed that was enough. He believed it still.

“A good day, son,” his father might offer up, at the end of a day. His son understood it as a token of thanks for his good fortune in rearing a son who loved the land. His mother put to good use the fruits of their labor, cooked up extras of pork and greens, chicken and vine-ripened tomatoes, steak and new potatoes. On the occasion the son parked the tractor at the front door in the middle of the day to retrieve a misplaced glove, or bandage a bleeding hand he stopped to listen, fingers wrapped around the screen door handle, to his mother humming jazz standards gliding through the few rooms of the house.

Ambition found him as it does the investment bankers and entrepreneurs the world over. Ambition for a certain level of renown. We all want that, don’t we? That’s what he believed. He believed it still. He would make something of himself, and this acreage he’d been allotted, the same acres his parents had sweated the whole of their lives.

When his father keeled over, as the townsfolk told it, in the field one hot summer day, the son was there to pick up his body, lay it carefully in the bed of a wagon and haul it home.

The son, he was the only one left to fulfill that contract and try to justify the labor and the harshness and the mistakes of his parents’ lives, and that responsibility was so clearly his, was so great an obligation, that it made unimportant and unreal the sight of the motley collection of pallbearers staggering under the weight of his father’s body, and the back door of the hearse closing quietly upon the casket and the flowers. He buried his father on the land he’d troubled over for sixty years.

His mother followed his father to the grave in six months time. It was then, going through his parents’ lives, unfolding squares of yellowed papers, reading through ledgers, folding and unfolding clothes that he discovered the nature of that unease he’d always felt at the kitchen sink in the mornings sipping coffee with his father.

He was not his father’s son.




For SAM’s Master Class…     Kelly provided us with the last line of Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain. We could use that line anywhere in the story. We could use any or all of it. I chose the whole line, as an exercise, to see what I could do with it. I have not highlighted it here hoping it would fit in as seamlessly as possible. Though I am in no way comparing myself to the great Wallace Stegner!

Click the Master Class link to find out what the line is and let me know how I did.

Thanks for reading!

A Claim

For Trifecta Writing Challenge. The word is MELT. 3rd definition: to make tender or gentle: soften.


Sitting on the cold sand at the high tide line, the waves unspooling one after another, Robyn waited for the emotion to pull her under. She imagined giving in to the riptide of it, bouncing along the sandy bottom, before it spit her out, breathless, along the shore.

A wave rushed in, as if desperate to touch her pale skin, the foam dissolving between her bare toes. The next ignored her, as if granting a wish, retreating many yards shy of her lone figure, not wanting to dislodge her.

Tucking her hands into the unzipped pockets of a yellow fleece, Robyn turned up the collar  against the chill. What did she look like: a canary, an oriole? A petite, slender woman even in middle age, no thickening at her waist or expanding hips. She supposed she was lucky. Everyone said so. She ate what she wanted, but she’d always had a small appetite. She found no comfort in food as others did, never reaching for it in uneasy times.

Pregnant with Dylan her weight had been problematic. She’d tried to follow doctor’s orders and increase her calorie intake, but it had only made her ill. The final two months, confined to bed, affixed to an intravenous line of vitamins, she’d meekly obeyed her husband’s soft demands that she consume the high-protein green smoothies he’d prepared.

Husband. In conversation she had not said, my husband this or my husband that, as her friends did. It was always Matthew. She had never laid claim to him. But with Dylan, her son, she could not stop saying it, my son.

Protective, like his father, he had wanted to accompany her to the beach, but she had begged him not to. She longed to rest in the soft sand, allow that surge of relief to melt her coiled anticipation. But, it remained elusive, a stranger lurking in the shadows, refusing to show itself.

Where was that palliative sigh? Where was the long-awaited release? Matthew, her husband, dead.