by Nona Charleston
When I returned to my hometown after a twenty-five-year absence, I eased the transition from North Shore Boston to Tulsa, Oklahoma, by joining a women’s writing group. While I was at long last home, I had returned with a back pocket of memory, confused by the newness of the oldest place I knew.
Writing in the group was a way to unscramble and make sense of the seemingly arbitrary delivery of life’s story. Back as a single mother with a second grader and set to care for aging parents, I needed to quickly find a way to understand the narrative of my changed life. I was ready to be part of a group that encouraged personal stories. The group had been together for as long as I had been gone and was generous in support and criticism. I describe it as a writing group rather than a writer’s group because meetings included a timed exercise in writing.
Two weeks ago three of us met to sort through our writing from the past, and that’s when I found the following few paragraphs about my father, which came from a writing group prompt that called back family. I include it now as his birthday approaches. He was certainly a Taurus, a father bull navigating narrow spaces inside the china shop known as family.
When I catch myself by surprise in the mirror, I see my father’s face, not mine, his face in mine. I who never understood him, or even once imagined that I might favor him, lose my face inside of his. The remote father—who was the peripheral being, the corner of the room, the quiet navigator, the shadow, takes my place, for a long moment replacing my sense of self. And it is not just in the mirror.
I am mowing the lawn when I feel him inhabit my body, imposing his thoughts, ringing my mental telephone; the man who scarcely spoke to me in life must now tell me about mowing, about baseball, about fences and yards, crabgrass and children.
Was it because we both lived inside the shadow of my mother, who was quick to say what she wanted, when she wanted it, and who she wanted to bring it to her, that we were always partners without knowing? Were we but accidental accomplices—shelving our own desires, not knowing or understanding them—or could there be separate desires? And when I am set to be hard on myself, I stop to wonder if it wasn’t simply easier to erase our wills? These things we shared.
The smell of the cut grass rises in the heat of summer. The loudness of the gasoline-powered mower hollows out a senseless quiet place with its steady roar when his thoughts and questions fill up my mind.
This uneasy recognition, one that startles, is a kind of clock, perhaps, an unambiguous face marked with numbers and reason. It steps into sequence, organizing memory, reminding me how long he has been absent from life, mine and his own. These thoughts come back louder than logic, stronger than silence. Perhaps it is memory that won’t allow silence. It’s got to babble on like an invisible racecar running backwards, retracing the real and the imagined. There is much I missed from our shared history. I stand at his stone longing to ask and wonder why we were what we were, familiar strangers linked by blood and bone. The stone is silent except for date and place; it is too late to ask. I know it will happen again, this odd invasion. I cut the grass and listen.
Nona Charleston is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the Director of Nationally Competitive Scholarships at The University of Tulsa.