Sunday, March 25, 2012

RETURNING by Heather Marsten

A year after the courts sent me to live with Diane, she starts talking with Mom on the phone and learns that Maria and Howard bring their kids to visit our parents.

One day, after I get home from school, Diane says, “My kids are getting cheated from visiting their grandparents because of you. Don and I decided we’re going there for Christmas and you’re coming too.”

This is the stuff of nightmares. “Can’t I stay home?”

“No, it wouldn’t look right.”

“I don’t want to go back into that house.”

“I don’t give a damn. You and your feelings make me sick. They’ve caused me no end of trouble.”

Should have chosen an orphanage.

Christmas Day we get in the car. I can’t stop shaking and it’s hard to get a full breath. I wear a turtleneck, long pants, and a sweater over that. I don’t want him to see my body. Why can’t I stay home?

We go in by the front door, more like guests than family. I have to kiss them on the cheek; but don’t hug. Dad sits on his couch as usual, king of the living room; but he has pants on. Mom sits in her chair, fiddling with her cigarettes and orange juice. Don takes the only other seat in the living room, so Diane, the kids, and I sit on the floor near the tree. The tension in the air is palpable. The whole house looks dingy and smells of cigarette smoke. I’d forgotten that aroma.

I glance at the sofa, looking for weapons. Dad said he would kill me if I told, so maybe there’s a hidden a gun under the sofa cushions. He could take us all out. There’s no knife or letter opener on the coffee table but that doesn’t mean we’re safe.

“Miserable weather,” Diane says. “Worst winter for snow.”

“Had to hire a neighborhood kid to shovel.” Dad says.

Weather talk, the universal antidote for discomfort.

Everyone looks at the two boys and Connie who are excited by the piles of presents under the tree. Kids are another safe area.

Diane grabs Keith’s arm and forces him to sit. “Settle down, now,” she says through clenched teeth.

Her hand is shaking. I don’t get why she’s putting herself through this torture. If I ever have kids, I’d never bring them anywhere near my parents. Maybe to Mom, but I wouldn’t take a chance with Dad.

Mom asks, “Would you like something to drink?”

“Yeah!” the kids shout.

Diane and I grab the kids’ hands and follow Mom to the kitchen. I glance toward my bedroom. It’s exactly the same. I shudder, remembering his visits, the hurt, fear, pain, and smothering. Even the bedspread’s the same. It’s like they think I’m coming back. I see the mark of the gunshot, near the cuckoo clock in the hallway.

The kitchen still has hideous yellow walls and a red ceiling. It’s like stepping into a time warp. I lean against the kitchen doorframe and remember telling Mom what he did. I wonder if he beat her over those notebooks.

The kids sit at the table drinking sodas and chattering.

Diane hugs Mom, “I miss you so much.”

“Miss you, too.”

Mom looks my way with accusation blazing out of her eyes. It’s as if all this is my fault.

“You guys are getting so big.” Mom smiles at the kids and they sit taller in their chairs.

Diane says, “Connie’s a great dancer, Keith plays T-ball, and Gary’s already in kindergarten.”

“My, I’m so proud of you.” Mom says. “So how’s school, Shirley? Diane says you’re getting good grades.”

“It’s fine, thank you.” I mumble, as I focus on making silly faces at Gary so he smiles and doesn’t wiggle too much and get Diane mad. If I could, I’d dig a hole and crawl inside.

After the kids drink sodas, we go to the living room and they tear into their presents: dolls, trucks, and a fire engine. They get clothes, but those are tossed aside in favor of the toys.

Dad sits on his throne and watches the havoc as the living room is buried under crumpled wrapping paper.

Mom gives me a few shirts and a skirt. I didn’t get what I really wanted – an apology.

I feel Dad’s eyes looking me over. It creeps me out. Sometimes I wonder if he would have stopped his abuse? I don’t think so, judging from how he’s looking at me now. I cross my arms to hide my chest and remember how dirty I felt with his hands on my body and the horrid things he made me do.

Daddy tickles the kids. They think Grandpa’s great. Little do they know.

After an eternity of two hours, we say our goodbyes complete with kisses and hugs.

I breathe a sigh of relief as we drive away.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Diane asks me.

“No.” I’m afraid to say the truth.

At home, I take a shower to wash that house and the smell of smoke off of me. I especially scrub my face to remove any trace of their kisses. What I can’t wash off are the memories that came from being in that house and seeing them again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

IN BETWEEN by Polly Howells

I see my father doing his morning exercises, but they are not calisthenics in the usual sense of the word. He has black ballet slippers on and he is doing plies and ronde de jambes. He is there where the kitchen, the den, and the hall to the bedrooms come together. No one else is up. He has just cleaned the cat box – he has taken care of the cats, and now he is taking care of his body.

I have huge respect for him, the way he takes care of things. He takes care of people too. He takes care of me. I love these mornings when he and I have breakfast together. It is such a precious time. Before Mother wakes up. She always comes out of their room grumpy and rumpled. She doesn’t take care of her body. She doesn’t take care of her soul.

Father designed and built this house, high on a rock ledge in a woody suburb outside of Boston. It is nothing fancy – a long low rectangular structure with picture windows. I have chosen my room, at the far end of the house. I have chosen the colors of my room – blue and beige. Toni’s room is next to mine, a smaller room because she is going away to college. Her curtains are red. There is a closet between our two rooms and I have urged my father to put a door on both ends, to make a secret passage between our rooms. He does. So we can visit without telling them? So we can have a secret life together?

I feel myself pushing past her clothes and I smell the oil of her paintings which are stored in there, but I don’t remember ever hanging out with her in her room. I see her room empty, uninhabited. She has left for college. I go into her room, from the door in the hall, not through the closet, and I read everything there is there to read. I read her journals. I play her 45 records. I take them into my collection. For years she is angry about what I have stolen. I see it as borrowing. I see it as trying to get inside her, trying to know her better. But she is gone. I am home. Of course it doesn’t feel that way to her.

I am lonely that my sister has left, even though we are no longer close. When we lived in our former house we used to visit one another in her room, and we tickled each other’s backs. She used to draw letters on my back and ask me what letters they were. And put objects on – ooh cold objects, paperweights perhaps, or scissors – and the game was to guess what they were.

After she leaves I am all theirs. Mother tells me, much later, that I begin to talk after Toni leaves. Of course I literally talked before, but now I talk more. Am I all theirs? Or am I alone?

I wander in the woods behind our house, down a dirt road.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


In my six decades of life, I’ve been married once. Only once. Seems like less than the average these days. But, that’s not really my point.

I’ve now been divorced for far longer than I was married. My legal union with Michael lasted 10 years. We were together for 12 (on and off). Been divorced now for 20.

Michael – he’s the marrying kind. Me, not so much. You can tell that about Michael because he’s currently married to his fourth wife, and he was married five times, if you count me twice.
We legally separated after two years of marriage, then ran into each other on the street one day after not communicating for 18 months. I guess we weren’t quite finished with one another: I started dating my husband, and we soon started living together, resuming our marriage for 7 more years.

But me – I’m not the marrying kind. After my divorce from Michael – when his beloved and pricey toy soldier collection (called Britons) was finally gone from the top of my dining room breakfront, after I had held it hostage there for 14 months or so to get more leverage in our divorce proceedings (which I at first thought would be amicable, but turned out to be anything but) – I never remarried. Didn’t even come close.

Before the divorce papers were signed, when I was 41, I found myself – or propelled myself – into a near-decade-long, clearly unhealthy, mostly one-sided, severely obsessive (on my side), easily arguably psychically sado-masochistic romantic (on my side) entanglement with David, the dashing, but oh-so-elusive Englishman. I spent the bulk of my 40s creating and chasing the fantasy that was David.

Fast forward to my 50s. I became the queen of first dates. Internet dates mostly. I started supporting’s investors when I was still a New York City gal. Continued my membership on that website when I relocated two hours north of the big city. Found other online dating sites, too, i.e., starting swimming around in the stale, murky waters of Plenty of Fish. It became a lifestyle. Met mostly good, decent men (with just a couple of memorable exceptions), or so it seemed. The issues were usually mine.

But, getting back to Michael, my ex-husband – and, something familiar, which is really what I wanted to tell you about. He’s married to Carol now. I’ve met her; nice woman. And, after many years -- almost 2 decades, really -- of mutual contempt, animosity, and the nastiest of name calling, Michael and I have morphed into friends. E-mail buddies at the very least. When he heard recently that I was planning a trip to Thailand, he sent me a U.S. government report for Americans traveling abroad, about the state of the state of Thailand, as my Jewish mother may have done years ago.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

HEARTBREAK by Arthur M. Kahn

On the Thursday afternoon before Labor Day, 2001, I received a call from a rookie lawyer. She had been assigned to represent a woman in a neglect case who was in danger of having her parental rights to her son terminated. The rookie was honest and forthright. “Arthur, I'm not competent enough to represent this woman and I'm afraid that if I'm her trial lawyer, I'll screw it up for her." I asked her if the Judge knew about this. She told me that she had approached the Judge and asked her if I could take over the case. The judge told her that I would have to agree.

The problem was that the trial was scheduled for the Tuesday after Labor Day and no adjournment would be granted. She also told me that the child was in foster care and the foster family wanted to adopt the client's son. The Department of Social Services supported the adoption. Great. I had 4 days to prepare for a very serious trial with much at stake for my client. I said yes, I would take the case. I actually liked the situation. Tough case, little time to prepare. Bad odds. Bring it on.

Even though the odds looked bad, I liked them because I was contemptuous of the Department of Social Services. Many of the workers were young and without kids. This meant they had little perspective on what the day to day skirmishes were in the life of most families. They didn't appreciate the sometimes difficult choices parents have to make.

I spent Friday reviewing the file at Family Court. It was, in fact, a tough case. I don't recollect why my new clients sons was in foster care. The current claim was that my client had failed to participate in developing a plan to get her son back home. There were a series of missed meetings and appointments to prepare for her son to return home, without, apparently, sufficient or acceptable reasons for her non-participation. All of this written in language that bordered on contempt for my client. Her son had been in foster care for over 18 months, a period of time that legally justified the application for termination of my clients parental rights. There was no father available and DSS didn't think much of my clients partner. Moreover, the boy was placed with a very acceptable middle class family in Dutchess county who were eager to adopt him. On the surface, it made sense that my clients son would be better off if his foster parents adopted him.

I met with my client on Saturday morning. She was in her late 20's but looked much older. She was worn down by everyday life. Her son was her eldest child, born was she was 16. She had 3 or 4 other kids. She explained that she had been thwarted in her attempts to help plan for her son's return home by the inflexibility of the case worker. She and her partner worked three or four part-time jobs, they had 1 car, a 15 year old junker which often broke down. Her DSS worker had been unwilling to accommodate her in scheduling meetings at times when she might be able to participate in planning for her son's return home.

The underlying reason for the inflexibility of the worker was, in my opinion, an issue of social class. Obviously, to me, the DSS worker felt that a middle class foster family trumped a poor, lower class, working class, mother. The boy would be better off with a middle class family of good social standing, relatively well off and, most importantly, stable. Tough case, I thought, even given the fact that the system is supposed to be designed to keep children with their natural parents.

I always tried to get a feel for what life was like for my clients. I asked about her other kids, how they did in school. She had four kids, the oldest being her son in foster care. I asked about where they lived. She told me they lived in a large house big enough so each of her kids had their own room. A big backyard. Strangely middle class house, I thought, for someone who worked 2 jobs a week, probably more. Same for her live-in boy friend. One car for 2 people to get to work. I asked about their income. They lived with their noses just above water. Backbreaking life.

I asked how much the rent was. She told me, "I don't pay rent. I own my home." Whoa! That hit me like a hammer. I was astounded. I asked her how much her mortgage payment was. “There's no mortgage. It's fully paid for."

I couldn't believe what I had just heard. I asked her what the house cost. “$75,000.” I then asked the obvious question, “Just how were you able to do that?” Turns out her father had passed away when she was 18 and left her an inheritance of $90,000. She had taken the money and bought the house because “I wanted my kids to have a home." At that precise moment I realized I had the best hand in the game. I represented a woman of character. A woman who, at the age of 18, instead of foolishly spending her inheritance, acted to protect and provide for her children. Most 18 year old people, I reasoned, would probably have spent the money on immediate gratification. They'd buy clothes and cars and bling and other bon bons. Perhaps a few trips, get a new car, buy drugs, etc. I got a much smaller inheritance when my grandfather died in 1970 and my wife and I headed to Europe for three weeks. Had a great trip and never thought of saving a dime. But not this woman. She wanted a roof over her kids head so she bought a house. Character. A good card to have.

This was crucial. It put my case in a much better position. The other card card in my pocket was the judge, Mary Work. Judge Work was, and still is, an excellent, hard working judge, who really cares about kids. Besides being a parent herself, she's smart and savvy and has a really well calibrated bullshit meter. She would think of mom as a woman of character living in poverty and trying her best to support and protect her kids and her best to cooperate with DSS. She was always able to focus on the real issue in Family Court – the best interests of the child. A lot of people and, frankly, lawyers, think the objective in Family Court is to throw as much mud as you can at the other adult. Wrong. The only issue is what's in the best interests of the kids. And I thought I had enough cards to win on that issue.

I put the case together over the weekend. I asked mom if she could get me some photographs of the house. I didn't want the judge to just listen to mom talking about the house. I wanted her to see it. The photo's I got were excellent. They showed a home, not just a house. It was clean inside and out and not in chaos.

The trial took place on the Tuesday after Labor Day. I was right about the judge's reaction to the fact that my client didn't waste an inheritance but acted to protect her children. Despite what had first seemed to be a case with long odds, the decision was easy. The judge ordered my client's son home with his mother and siblings, “today." Great victory over the odds and the system. A day to be proud.

Two years later I read in the newspaper that the boy I had tried so hard and successfully to free from foster care had been accused of raping his 12 year old sister. Sometimes this shit just breaks your heart.