At a St. Patrick’s Day party this week, my new friend, Fran, who had just read Parting Gifts for the first time, told me my words were among the best she’d ever read. “Like in my top five!” she said. “And I read A LOT!”
There really is no better compliment than that. You can love my books or you can hate my books, but if you think my writing is good, well, nothing really matters more.
“I’ve read some real shit,” she said. “How in the world are those authors famous and you’re not?” she asked. “I think you need better marketing.”
She’s not wrong. When Parting Gifts was published in 2016, I was figuring out who I truly was, coming out of the closet, beginning the journey of a long and painful divorce, and promoting my new book was the last thing on my mind.
Add to that those ever-present feelings of unworthiness, and self-promotion can feel like a big, ugly, intimidating beast.
But in my 53rd year, I’m embracing my words again. I’ve finished my memoir. I’ve begun my next novel. I’m back to blogging.
So, on the eve of the celebration of my 53rd trip around the sun, here’s a little glimpse into my memoir, Hurricane Lessons. What better to post on my birthday than a story about the day I arrived in this world?
(I hope you like my words as much as Fran does.)
~ ~ ~
Hurricane Lessons (an excerpt, copyright 2023)
My father left long before I’d made my way through the ragged emergency hole in my mother’s stomach, red curls glistening, all the indignities of the world bursting from my new lungs.
“It looked like a scene from The Exorcist,” my Aunt Mimi—who’d watched my arrival—said. “Your head was spinning from side to side. I kept waiting for the projectile vomiting to start.”
“You were not about to enter this world unnoticed,” my mom replied, a Merit Ultra Light elegantly balanced between middle and pointer, red lipstick marks on the edge. She’d recently stopped dying her hair black and had let it grow into its natural snowstorm white. My mother was gorgeous with her chiseled cheeks and eyes so dark and deep a person could get lost in them and never find their way out. “No one was going to miss your arrival. Your sister, on the other hand, came sweetly and quietly. She smiled from day one, and she never stopped. You two have always been my little polar opposites.”
My sister looked like my mom with her dark eyes and dark hair. She looked like my wealthy cousins, like my beloved maternal aunts and uncles. I looked like my dad, like the family I didn’t really know. Red curls, blue eyes, freckles too numerous to count. I looked different. Felt different. Wished I was thin and willowy like the Andersons, not sturdy and athletic like the Hodges. The Andersons, I knew; The Hodges, I did not. With no one to emulate, I wasn’t sure who to be.
My dad came back into our lives periodically, but he never stayed. When he was around, he was loud, fun, the life of the party. A former football player in the Marines, he was a muscular hulk with an abundance of chest hair and too many gold chains spilling out of his unbuttoned shirt. Excessive: That was my dad. A lot. The blue of his April morning eyes and the alluring space between his teeth caused many female heads to turn. Dad drank Scotch on the rocks, called me “his little shit,” and breezed in on random birthdays and the occasional Christmas Eve with bar gifts: a neon Heineken sign, a Jameson mirror.
“I bet none of your friends have these,” he’d say, his silver mustache bouncing with each word. And he was right. My Catholic school friends got tiny crosses on gold chains from their fathers. Santa Claus left them frilly dresses, golden-haired baby dolls, and tea sets under the tree. No one else had an XL men’s t-shirt with Jose Cuervo emblazoned across the front.
One Christmas morning, when I was seven and still waiting to hear Santa’s sleigh on our apartment roof, Dad arrived with rainbow striped bags stuffed full of Life Savers and Bubble Yum. I was careful around him, and a bit shy. I didn’t want to scare him away with my loud voice and my intrusive freckles and my barrage of questions. Where have you been? What did you do there without us? How long are you staying? Why did you go? What can I do to make you stay?
I vividly recall how he wrapped me up in his arms on the couch while we watched TV that night. I breathed in the scent of his Old Spice and his whiskey so it would stay with me, deep in my lungs, because I knew he wouldn’t. I wanted to tell him about my playground basketball team, about baseball at the Boys Club. But what he really wanted to do was tell me about himself, his dreams, his grand plans. So I listened. And I breathed him in some more. He talked about a faraway land called California and pairs of Aces and balmy, palm tree sunsets. As I was nodding off to sleep, Mom took me from his arms to tuck me into bed. And I held on a little longer, not wanting to let go. I said, Please stay. But I only said it in my head, not with my voice.
Because I knew he wouldn’t.
It became the mantra of my life.
Please stay. Please stay. Please stay.
Decades later, when one-by-one my own children were pulled from my belly—four within five years—wet and wide-eyed and slippery, this was a reality I could not reconcile: the choosing not to stay. The leaving. The decision to bring a child into the world and then to walk away. It was a life I could not slip into; it was a hand-me-down dress that did not fit.
That long-ago Christmas night when my wild red curls were still unkempt and my freckles had not yet faded, I reached under my bed and pulled out the colorful bag Dad had brought for me. I sat up against my pillows, careful not to wake Carrie sleeping a few feet away, and unwrapped piece after piece of grape Bubble Yum. I shoved them into my mouth, chewing and salivating until I could hardly move my jaws. I let the purple spit run down my throat and down my chin as I savored the sugary, artificially grape flavor. Anything grape still reminds me of my dad and what I then understood to be a father’s love—unexpected gifts of gum and a few hours together in front of the TV.
Every time Dad left, he took all my oxygen with him. It was these little abandonments, these pockets of disappointment that pierced my heart again and again until it was left holey and damaged and incomplete. As I grew, my need for him was as big as my mother’s stomach wound, as pink and raw as her early scar.
She wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother.
I wanted nothing more than to be a wanted daughter.