The Twelfth of December by Holly Gaskin
364 days had passed, sometimes creep-crawling, other times sprinting, until the calendar page once again screamed “December 12.” I’d been conscious that it was creeping up, as I ripped page after page off the calendar at the end of each day, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11… now, here it was. Still, the date stood out like an insulting, bold-faced lie, occupying a small space on the corner of my desk.
It can’t really be here… it wasn’t supposed to come again!
I had considered not tearing yesterday’s page off, and letting it be December 11th forever, but I knew I didn’t really have the power to freeze time. I’d had one whole year to prepare for this day.
They say “it gets easier,” as if the healing is a guarantee, but really, it’s not so simple. I will be fine and strong for weeks at a time, and then a dream, a photograph, or a song will rip open that wound, rendering me into the weeping, mourning daughter of twelve months ago.
That it had happened smack dab in the middle of the holiday season made it especially painful. I could still picture her gifts, all wrapped up in festive reds and greens with elaborate ribbons. It wasn’t until the following June that my husband convinced me to unwrap them and donate the contents to Goodwill. And he was right; it felt good to pass the things on to those who needed it. It’s what Mom would have wanted.
Shortly thereafter, my husband and I decided that on December 12th, we would visit The Spot, and leave a red rose there. It was her favorite flower, although her name had been Lily.
Sitting in the passenger seat with a single, red rose clutched in my lap, I felt nervous. The anxiety was similar to the feeling I’d get whenever I had to make a public speech. Like I was going to freeze up and get tongue-tied. Except, I had no audience and no lines to remember today, so my nervousness was irrational.
I stepped out of the car, and into the frosty December air. I took in my surroundings, which had changed so much since Mom passed away. New stores, new restaurants and a reconfigured highway to accommodate the heavier traffic. It might be hard to find the exact spot. Even the sidewalks had been rebuilt.
My husband squeezed my hand and we started walking. It was in the single digits; the wind chill made it feel like well below zero. Snow coated the ground. It was as winter should be. One year ago today, it had felt more like spring, with temperatures in the 50’s and bright sunshine. That weather had been as much a freak of nature as Mom’s accident.
We stopped. Or, actually, I felt my husband stop, so I did, too. I’d been staring at the ground as I walked, lost in thought. When I looked up, I saw that we were a couple of yards from destination.
But… what was this? Somebody was standing by the side of the road, right where I needed to be. It was a young man, in a long, dark coat. His hands were crammed into his pockets and his head was bowed. He paid no attention to the traffic whizzing by, nor did he notice us watching him.
Was he waiting for a ride? Was he high? Lost? What was wrong with him?
Suddenly, I just knew.
I locked eyes with my husband. As always, he seemed to read my mind, and he, too, understood. He asked me, in a whisper, whether I wanted to do this alone or if I needed him to go with me. I indicated that I wanted to go by myself and he released my hand.
I silently made my way over to the young man. He didn’t notice me until I was right next to him. He jumped a little, startled out of his trance. His expression of surprise was replaced by one of shock, and I knew he realized who I was. He looked scared, and I thought he might bolt, but he didn’t.
Instead, he bowed his head and stared at the spot where the car had come to rest, one year ago this morning. I’d long ago accepted the fact that the accident had probably changed this young man’s life almost as much as it had changed mine. Neither of us was the same person we were 365 days ago.
I never harbored any anger toward “the other guy.” It had been clear from the beginning that the accident had been nobody’s fault; that’s why it’s called an accident. It was just another sad story in the news, one that would quickly be replaced by another, then another, and soon forgotten by the fickle masses. I’d often wondered about the person behind the name that appeared in the newspapers. Now here he was, looking more boyish than I’d imagined, tormented by a twin of the ghost that haunted me. In a way, I wasn’t surprised to see him there.
I was dumbfounded, however, when I saw the rose in his pocket. Its red head was peeping out at me, a bright contrast against the black wool of the man’s coat. I held its sister in my hand.
He saw the flower I was holding and immediately his hand flew to pat his coat pocket. He looked almost astonished when he retrieved the rose, as if he’d thought I had somehow slipped it out of his pocket without him noticing.
Two strangers, two roses, one purpose. I held out my hand and let the rose fall to the ground. The young man did the same a second later. We stood still for a minute. He stared off into the distance, his eyes following the five-lane traffic as it disappeared into the western outskirts of the city. I looked up at the sky, trying to spot the opening to Heaven among the clouds.
My attention was diverted back to the young man, when he made a sound alike a strangled gasp. I followed his eyes to the ground, and my breath caught in my throat.
The two red roses had landed together, forming a perfect cross in the snow. There was no mistaking it for anything else. We stood and stared at it, committing the picture to our memories.
The honking horns, car radios, and morning rush hour noise slowly brought us back to our senses. Our eyes met once more, just for an instant. We didn’t speak; we just nodded and parted ways. There were no words to be said.
You will not find this fact in any textbook, or even on Wikipedia, but I can attest that October 31st, 1979 was The Worst Halloween Ever. Of course, we don’t know we’re making history while we’re making it. All I knew at the time was that I had the worst luck of any kid in the world.
Halloween fell on a Wednesday that year. My mother had wed my stepfather the Saturday before, and they were on their honeymoon, on a cruise to Bermuda. I was temporarily living in the back of a bar. Okay, to be fair, it was a cottage that was built on the same property as the tavern, a little ways behind it. I guess this scenario calls for some backstory, so here it is…
The bar was called The Blue Top. It was owned by an ornery fellow named Red. His always-cheerful wife, Weezy, tended bar and traded raunchy barbs with the patrons. How did I know this? I was there on a weekly basis. Mommy would bring me along on dates with her best friend, Helen, and then with Bud, the man who would eventually become my stepfather. Red didn’t approve of kids in his bar, but Weezy loved me, so his protests were over-ruled. I’d sing for the customers and they would reward me with quarters, which I’d divide equally between the jukebox and the shuffleboard machine.
Red and Weezy had an adult daughter named Lucinda. She was twenty-something, single, and pretty. Her long brown hair reached her waist, and she wore eyeglasses with huge frames, which were the style back in the day. Lucinda was my designated babysitter for the duration of my parents’ honeymoon. I was delighted at the opportunity to spend time with this effervescent, young woman, who doted on me. I got to take a different school bus to get to my second grade class, and there’d be hot cocoa and homemade cookies when I got home in the afternoon. It was all a great adventure, until Halloween day rolled around.
It wasn’t until that day, during lunchtime and recess, when all the other kids were excitedly talking about the costumes they would be wearing for trick or treat that night, that the terrible truth hit me… my mother had forgotten to pack my Halloween costume when she dropped me off at Lucinda’s!
Some more backstory is needed here. Growing up, my mother and I were on Welfare. I didn’t know that we were poor. To me, “on Welfare” meant that my books were mostly secondhand, with pages scribbled on in crayon, by some naughty child who owned it before me. My stuffed animals had been pre-loved as well. Freddy the teddy bear was eyeless, and Raggedy Ann was missing an arm.
When it came to Halloween, my mother could only afford a cheap plastic mask for 99 cents at Woolworth’s, never the whole costume. I was so proud of my Woody Woodpecker mask in kindergarten… until I got on the school bus, only to have all the other kids laugh at me. The scenario repeated itself the following year, when I wore a nurse mask (because that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up). I was very pleased with myself, until Joanna Rhinebeck boarded the bus wearing the same mask… along with a white nurse’s uniform and matching white shoes.
This Halloween was supposed to be different. My new stepfather, Bud, made good money as a fire inspector. So this year, not only did I have a scary witch mask, but a pointy hat and a black dress to go with it! It was to be my first Halloween in full costume.
I jumped off the schoolbus and raced across the yard to Lucinda’s house in a tearful panic. After I explained the situation, we hopped into her car and she drove us to 325 Howard Avenue. She parked in the driveway of the little log cabin that I’d called home for less than a week. We peeked through my bedroom window. The closet door was open, and we could see the box containing my witch costume resting high on a shelf. So close, and yet so far! We tried both doors and all the windows, probably looking like a pair of cat burglars to the neighbors. Everything was securely locked.
My heart was a lead weight in my chest during the sad ride back to Lucinda’s house. But I noticed she was smiling. Why?
“You’ll have a witch costume by trick or treat time,” she assured me when we got back to her place. “We’ll improvise!”
At seven, I had no idea what “improvise” meant, but I found out soon enough. I watched as Lucinda rummaged through her closet, in search of a black blouse or dress. Alas, there wasn’t a single black item in her wardrobe. The closest she had was a long, navy blue skirt.
Seeing my frown, she said: “Don’t worry. It’ll be dark when we go trick or treating. It will look black. Trust me.”
I stood still as she pulled the skirt over my head and tied it under my armpits with a belt. It matched the dark blue turtleneck I was wearing.
Next, Lucinda found some black construction paper that she used for craft projects. Her hands fluttered like hummingbirds as they busily rolled and glued sheets of paper together. My eyes widened in amazement as the paper took on a cone shape… a witch’s hat! Lucinda plopped it on my head. Next, she handed me a small whisk broom, and a pillowcase to use as a trick or treat bag.
I was a happy little girl as Lucinda took me from house to house along the busy Main Road. But, after we’d gone to only six houses, she uttered words that shocked me.
“This will be our last stop tonight,” she said, as we ascended the steps of a fancy stone house.
“What?!?” My jaw dropped. “I’ve gotten hardly any candy!”
“I’m only taking you to the houses of people I know,” said Lucinda, as she rang the doorbell. “Not strangers.”
To add insult to injury, the man who answered the door didn’t drop candy into my bag. Instead, he gave me a toothbrush!
“He’s a dentist,” Lucinda explained, as we made our way back to the car.
I was fuming as she snapped my seat belt into place. Halloween hadn’t been saved after all!
I thought of Halloweens past, when Mommy drove me to house after house, not knowing or caring who lived there. She’d take me to “rich” neighborhoods, where the houses looked like mansions to my young eyes. (Please note that we lived in a single-wide trailer at the time.) Best of all, once my trick or treat bag was full, she let me dump it out in the backseat of the car. Then she’d drive me to even more houses, until I filled it up again! The candy lasted for weeks, with Mommy taking the Snickers bars and anything with coconut for herself; everything else was mine.
Lucinda let me have one piece of candy before bed. Then she watched as I brushed my teeth with the toothbrush the dentist had given me.
I hope someone eggs his house, I thought as I brushed.
When Mommy and Bud returned from their honeymoon, I recounted my Halloween horror story for them.
“You needed a new toothbrush anyway,” said Bud. Ever the jokester, he was.
Mommy genuinely felt guilty though, apologizing profusely. “I have something that might make you feel better,” she said. “Wait here.”
I sat on the couch, wiggling with anticipation as she disappeared into her bedroom. She returned with a large plastic bag.
“This is from Bermuda,” she said, and handed me a tiny bottle of what appeared to be pink fairy dust.
“What is it?” I turned the bottle around and around in my hands.
“Sand!” Mommy said. “The sand is PINK there, Holly! Can you imagine?”
I could, but I wasn’t particularly impressed.
“And… be very careful with this.” Mommy handed me a gift that needed no explanation. It was a necklace made out of seashells!
I beamed, and put it around my neck right away. I noticed that there was still something in the bag. It looked big and kind of lumpy.
“I did something really silly,” Mommy said, as she reached into the bag. Ever so slowly, she pulled out the surprise. “I was so excited about the honeymoon, I wasn’t thinking straight. I forgot I wouldn’t be home for Halloween. I bought candy to hand out to trick or treaters!”
With that, she whipped out not one, but two big bags of sweets: a package of miniature Three Musketeers bars, and another of lollipops! “Only a couple of pieces a day,” she warned, as I pawed at the candy. “And… what else?”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “I know,” I said. “I’ll brush my teeth afterwards!”
AUTHORS NOTE: Some names in this true story have been changed. Others have not. I have my reasons.
Every two or three years, the sickness hits me. My heart starts to feel heavy, my mind drifts off to a faraway place, my lungs cannot fill with adequate air. The walls seem to be drawing closer, and the ceiling lower, by fractions of millimeters each day, until I’m struck with an almost paralyzing fear that I’m living in a coffin. I run outside before the lid can slam shut. However, the air outdoors isn’t breathable; it is stagnant and suffocating. The faces I see are familiar. They have names attached to them that I should know, but just can’t seem to recall. They smile paper smiles and wave their mannequin hands at me, in gestures of false friendliness.
And I know I have to go.
The inevitable question people ask when I tell I’m going back home for a visit is: “Do you still have family out there?” The answer is “no.” I have zero family members back home, me being an only child, and my parents and grandparents being deceased. The asker will look confused when I tell them this, but I don’t bother to try to ease their confusion with an explanation. They’d never understand.
Home IS my family. My family IS my home.
When I set foot on the sidewalks of my childhood, my heart is filled with a euphoria that I thought I would never find again. Twenty years of disappointments, illness and loss disappear. My body feels young and strong. The whole world seems so much brighter, it hurts my eyes to look at it. My smile returns.
It doesn’t matter that strangers now live in the house where I grew up, while other unknown souls dwell in the houses that belonged to my neighbors. Or that only two of the ten shops on the quaint Main Street of my little town still bear the same names. My old school is much bigger, but those are the doors I walked through as a teenager! This is the curb where I stepped off the schoolbus! The same concrete under my feet.
The very air is different here; unlike any other in the world. There is no way to replicate the salt air smell that arises from the Bay and the Sound. It’s my favorite smell in the world. I swear, it has healing properties, like a vitamin. It soothes my soul, calms me to the core, and lulls me to sleep at night.
Look! The ice cream parlor is still there, where my father used to take me to get a sweet treat in a Dixie cup. And there is the theater, where I saw so many scary movies with my best friend. And the pizza parlor (with a different name now) where that same friend and I would argue over what songs to play on the jukebox. My dad and my old friend, are both gone from this world, but Home is still here. No matter how much it changes, I’ll always recognize it.
I’m not so sad when I must leave, to fly back to the Place Where I Now Live (I’ll never call it “home”). I’ve dusted off old memories so that they shine like new, and taken countless snapshots of the scenery with the camera of my eyes. I’ve collected so much joy that I have an abundant supply of bliss, which I can eke out in small doses over the next couple of years. Just enough to keep me going…
Until it is time to go Home again.
“Homesickness is nothing. Fifty percent of the people in the world are homesick all the time.” ~John Cheever
I’ve been going through boxes of family mementos, unearthing a hodgepodge of my own memories, and mysterious, black and white photographs from long before I was born.
One item I found caught me by surprise. It was a poem I had written long ago. I haven’t thought of it in years. Although there were no notations, including a date, I remembered exactly when I wrote it, and who it was about.
In the summer of 2001, a dear friend of mine took his own life. We used to write songs together and record them. He was a brilliant musician & recording engineer, and a dear friend. I loved him. I’d harbored hopes that someday he and I might be more than friends. Unfortunately, his demons stole him from this world.
I’ve edited the original poem. I’m sure there are many of you who can apply it to someone dear in your life.
Go On Living ©2001 Holly Cordova
It was a shock to lose you
No one was prepared
You were everything to everyone
Then suddenly… not there
In my broken heart
I know you haven’t died
For as long as my heart’s beating
You’ll always be alive
I’m reminded of your smile
When the sun is shining bright
And I think about your eyes
When I see the stars at night
You live on in my conscience
I clearly hear your voice
Giving clarity and guidance
So I make the wisest choice
Since you left this world
Each day I take the time
To count blessings, and not worries
And cherish all that’s mine
Although the words “I love you”
Weren’t often said aloud
I know you did, and so I’ll live
In a way to make you proud
I know that you are happy
In a Paradise above
While here, you go on living
In the hearts of all you loved
I’m still plowing ahead with my promise to read at least 4 books per month throughout 2017… and I’m also trying to expand my horizons, so to speak, by reading some books outside my normal, favorite genres. Here’s a run-down on what I read in April.
The Awakening and the Selected Short Stories– Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin was the author of two novels and approximately 100 short stories, which were originally published in the 1890s. She wrote mostly about race relations in the south, just a few decades after the Civil War. Many of her stories featured independent, free-thinking women protagonists, who questioned societal norms and challenged traditional female roles. At the time, Chopin’s work was considered controversial, even “vulgar.” In particular, critics singled out her novel, “The Awakening,” which was even banned at one point. It was not until five decades after her death, that Kate Chopin’s works were rediscovered by a new generation and praised for their strong feminist viewpoints. Chopin was merely a woman way ahead of her time. Read one of her most powerful short stories, Desiree’s Baby, by clicking on the link.
If Loving You is Wrong– Gregg Olsen
How funny that I was preparing to write this report, only to wake up to the news that Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau have separated after twelve years of marriage. Names don’t ring a bell? Guess you weren’t around in 1997, when the couple made nationwide headlines with their controversial affair. What was the big deal? Well, Mary Kay was married with four children at the time, and Vili was 12 years old. 34-year-old Mary was his teacher. She went to prison twice for her involvement with the manchild and bore him two daughters… the second being born while her mother was incarcerated. A very interesting True Crime read, which delves deep into Mary Kay’s psyche, taking a look back at her childhood and how it may have shaped the desperate woman she became.
Breaking Point- Suzy Spencer
Yes, so I went on a True Crime spree in April… reading-wise, I mean! For those of you who don’t know, I work in a bookstore. A customer purchased this book, and it sparked my interest, as I remember the news story very well. We had another copy in stock, so I was able to read the whole, shocking thing. It is not a book that you should read all at once; it’s barely digestible in small doses. It covers the horrific crime committed by Andrea Yates in 2001. In a fit of post-partum psychosis (or just plain psychosis, maybe), Yates drowned her five children, aged six months through seven years old, in a bathtub. At times I wanted to throw the book against a wall, or abandon it entirely. The portion of this book covering the murder trial is rather tedious. An intriguing read for those interested in abnormal psychology, but too unsettling for most.
The Wicked Girls– Alex Marwood
This was a re-read for me. Don’t want my old books to lay neglected, taking up space, after having only been read once! This British thriller centers on Bel and Jade, both eleven years old when they meet for the first and only time during their childhood. On that fateful day, the “wicked girls” accidentally kill a 4-year-old child left in their care. Both are sent to separate juvenile detention facilities, given new identities, and ordered never to see or contact one another again. Fast-forward twenty-five years. The child-killers, now known as Amber and Kirsty, are grown women living normal (although drastically different) lives. It’s purely by accident that they meet again… Kirsty is a journalist covering a string of murders in the area, and one victim happened to be slain in the amusement park where Amber works. Naturally, with all the media attention, someone is bound to recognize one of the women as the “wicked girl” who killed an innocent child so long ago, and now both Amber’s and Kirsty’s lives are in danger. Highly recommended for its fast-paced thrills, and unpredictable ending!
The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood – Sy Montgomery
I don’t normally gravitate towards animal stories (unless they’re about cats), but a Facebook friend made a post asking if anyone wanted to borrow and read this book. Never one to pass up the opportunity for a good (free!) read, I said “sure.” The premise is simple: It’s a true story, about a runt of a piglet who was adopted by a loving family (the author and her husband) and he grew up to be an enormous hog (750 lbs, to be exact) with an even larger fan following. This was pre-internet, mind you, so Christopher Hogwood never rose to Grumpy Cat heights. He was, however, featured in national publications, such as USA Today and on National Public Radio. Readers will enjoy tales about the pig’s comical antics, as well as heartwarming stories of friendship and humanity. It’s amazing that a pig could bring so many people together. Many lifelong bonds were formed, thanks to Chris.
That sums up my literary adventures for April. I went a little crazy in May… We’ll talk about it in a future post!
Mom ©2017 Holly E. Gaskin
You hated having your picture taken.
I guess that explains why there are only three photographs of us together when I was a baby. One, when I was in your tummy, just days before entering the world.
A second picture was snapped when I was just a few days old, snugly wrapped in your bathrobe-clad arms.
And a third, when I was 16-or-18-months old. I was dressed in a bright red jacket with a pointy hood, and you looked beautiful, all made up and donning your best wig.
Looking through the photo album of me growing up, a stranger might assume that you died shortly thereafter that picture was taken. Because you never appeared with me in another photograph until my wedding day, some 31 years later.
I understand now that you were ashamed of yourself, and that makes me sad. I realize that you were a prisoner in a morbidly obese body that so humiliated you, that you chose to lock yourself in your bedroom and hide whenever I had friends over. You wouldn’t meet my friends’ mothers, because you compared yourself to them and you were embarrassed. I guess that’s the same reason you would drop me off at church, but never set foot inside yourself. Instead of engaging with me as a parent, you chose to lose yourself in an alternative world. Namely, the ABC soap opera lineup, and piles of tabloids, like the Star, Globe, and National Enquirer.
Even though I was smiling in most of my childhood photos, I was extremely lonely. I was an only child, one with few friends, with an absentee father, and a stepfather whom I feared. You didn’t care. You merely cooked for me, but you nourished yourself and fed your feelings with Suzy Q’s, potato chips, and (once, when you were really drunk), raw hotdogs. Day after day, you were curled up on the sofa, dressed in your nightgown and bathrobe in the middle of the afternoon, watching All My Children and One Life to Live. I’d try to cuddle up next to you, and you LITERALLY pushed me away.
By that time (I was about 10 years old), I was writing in a diary, and creating my own stories, plays and poems. But never once did I write about the way you treated me, or how it hurt. At that young age, I did not yet have the words to express such a profound, deep despair.
When I got to be a teenager, I suffered the exact opposite affliction as you; I became anorexic. Eventually, I got down to 68 pounds. I was in a hospital in Amityville for four months. You acted like it was a chore to come see me every weekend. Even my counselor confronted you, asking: “How come you never ask about Holly’s treatment plan, and what we’re doing for her here? Do you think we’re working magic to make her better?” You just shrugged and blushed, an imbecilic expression on your face. I felt humiliated and resentful. After all… You LET me get down to 68 pounds!!!! It was only when a dermatologist I saw became alarmed at my skeletal appearance, and insisted that I be admitted to a hospital, that action was taken. Otherwise, I would likely have died.
Years later, I moved 400 miles away to Watertown, NY. After we’d spent a couple of years apart, you moved up here to escape the high cost of living on Long Island. You got into real estate, buying several rental properties. I couldn’t help but notice there was something different about you. You were less shy, more carefree, funnier. You made bold decisions (like buying the income properties) that you never would have done before. You made new friends, especially with Gloria, your gambling buddy. One day I looked at you closely and noticed that one corner of your mouth drooped a little. When I asked you about it, you reluctantly admitted that you “might have had an incident…” A what? “Maybe a mini-stroke,” you said, and changed the subject.
While that alleged mini-stroke did not cause any permanent physical damage, it changed you… for the better. It switched off that part of your brain that caused you to be painfully shy, soft-spoken, and submissive. For the first time in your life, you had spunk and confidence. I really, really loved the New You! For the first time in our lives, we were Friends. In May of 2004, looking glamorous in a royal blue pantsuit, you gave me away at my wedding.
I wish I’d been able to spend more time with that fun-loving stranger who gave birth to me, way back in 1972. We enjoyed some cool casino trips and concerts together, and family gatherings with my then-husband and his folks. But, Fate being the cruel monster that she is, robbed you from me in one, heartbreaking instant. A car accident, two weeks before Christmas… and also two weeks after we had our final photograph together.
I love and miss you, Mom. But I’m still angry. Angry at you for taking more than thirty years to be the Mother I’d always needed. Angry at God for taking you away without warning. And angry at myself, for not being able to just “let it go.”
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom…. wherever you are.