To Dust

February 28, 2017 § 6 Comments


It is six years to the day that my mom was found dead, and I still have some of the afterglow of the trauma. You’d think it would be gone if you followed the American model of mourning and had never lost anyone close. The rest of you know. The sad seeps through my day, and I don’t care that it is Mardi Gras and don’t want to go to the party—after all, this is New Jersey, and there will be no costumes, and on a Tuesday, no drinking after 10:30. We have work tomorrow.

But tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I remember that my mom was way into Lent and Ash Wednesday. And what you remember after someone dies becomes them.

I ask my kids what they remember of her. They both give the same answer: She had a bag filled with change and she gave them all the quarters. Cole, who studies such things, says generosity sticks in the mind. Jack Henry was nine, so lots of quarters were a big deal. A soft blue Crown Royal bag full of change is what my children remember of their grandmother. She was pretty smart. They think of the gift, forget the rest.

My mom was raised sort of Baptist, but went to Catholic school, and became Episcopal as an adult, so that’s what I was raised as. I remember the ashes, smudged on her forehead. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The darkest of days, after the pancake supper, dust. I remember going to school. You weren’t supposed to be embarrassed, to look in the mirror and see the dark smudge. You couldn’t wipe it off.

Nobody said, um you’ve got something right here. It was a remembrance. And I am not religious. Maybe on the tiniest edge of spiritual. I believe in ashes, of course. To dust I will return. I believe in forty days in the wilderness, at least. I believe in confusion and trying to make sense of the world. I remember the fog of trying to understand death. Sometimes it is good to have a real mark on your forehead. And then you are supposed to give something up. I know about this.


Good Night, Irene.

February 1, 2017 § 4 Comments


I was tempted to say good night to Irene, my check out lady, as I left the grocery late on a Tuesday night, but I figured in her 50 or so years, Irene had heard that plenty and might get a little annoyed. Instead, I asked her about the noise, the jack hammering into the customer service counter that was pulsing down my spine.

“Does that bother you?” I asked.

“I’ve got the headache,” she said. Irene did not elaborate.

She figured I’d know about the headache. I did. She kept scanning my groceries.

“Any idea when they’ll be finished?” I said. “Every time I come in here, they’ve moved everything around.”

Irene shrugged. “Tell me about it,” she said.

She endured my many brought-from-home-bags, but insisted on double bagging my meat in plastic, as if to say, Plastic Island will engulf us, whether you bring those or not. Do you really want chicken blood on everything? I had confidence that I could make it 3 miles and into the house without the chicken package exploding, but Irene did not, and here, I deferred. Irene had seen a lot.

In the magazine rack, Us featured the “first family,” which is to say, the Trump children from all the marriages. One of them was pulling another by the necktie, in a jovial way. I hadn’t thought they’d be featured in magazines, but they are, as some kind of Brady Bunch that spans forty years. Of course they are. Still, I thought the necktie thing might be subversive. On another shelf, the paper screamed about the insanity of Bannon.

It could have been the chicken blood that nearly brought me to tears in my car once I’d returned my cart to the “corral”; maybe it was the plastic bags. Right now, anything could do it.

The world was going to shit, and still I was buying groceries. I regret not standing up about the plastic bags. I worry about the necktie. I wonder why I am here on a Tuesday night, when I could be doing anything else—some small thing to resist.

But we all need to be fed. My children can’t wait. Nobody’s children can wait. That’s why I’m here. Why we all are, I suppose.

Irene was here last week, and I figure she’ll be here next, when our food runs out again. She works nights, despite the headache, the constant blast of unpleasant noise, the disruption with no apparent end. I’ll have to too.

Ratatouille, or How I will Survive the Next Four Years

January 13, 2017 § 1 Comment


I think I will survive our horrible political reality, this return to the 80s, the 50s, the 30s. Here’s why: I can outlast anyone. Not in a staring contest, or a fitness workout, but I can outlast just about anyone in a sheer test of will. My dad found this out the hard way.

It should have been easy. In two more years, I would declare myself vegetarian and a liberal. I would have had to eat the whole pot of Ratatouille on my own, just on those grounds. But this was before that. This was the late eighties, when things like croissants were new and different. Quiche and pasta salad were all the rage.

My dad fancied himself a gourmet cook. I did not fancy him any kind of cook. Truth be told, now that I cook, he used way too much oil and he was a fan of too rich food. He wasn’t often home for dinner, but when he was, he went all out. So, this night, it was ratatouille. If you have seen the movie, but not had the dish, let me explain. Ratatouille is a French vegetable stew. It involves eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes. Now, it sounds perfect on a cold night with good bread. But then? I refused to eat it. And once I refuse, I do not budge. Ask my children. Grit, not bull headedness, I choose to think.

We sat at the table, his Kruschev to my Kennedy. “We will sit here until you eat it!” he said. We sat. We sat. My mom quietly cleaned the kitchen behind us. She usually let the dishes soak, but this was a prize fight: the old stubborn man against the more stubborn daughter. We sat. The stew grew cold. The cold war stewed.

Eventually, he said, “I’m going to put this in the freezer,and you will eat it later.” I would not. He put the bowl in the freezer and with quiet glee, I slipped back to my room. I never ate that ratatouille. It sat in the freezer for months until someone threw it away. I can sit quietly and resist. It’s in my blood. I won’t eat this stew.

Back to School

September 29, 2016 § 4 Comments


It is late September, and it is”Back to School Night,” which this year I know means a night of high school for parents, but last year, I thought was “go follow your kid around and say hi to teachers night,” like we did in North Carolina, like civilized people do. Here, in New Jersey, I am expected to be in class alone at 7—pm, thank God, not am—and follow my son’s schedule in a compressed way through the maze that is his much-added-on-to school.

I am on time, but only because we live across the street. I look at all the other parents and think that I don’t look as old as them, but maybe I do. Probably I do, because we either gave birth or adopted in 2001, just before 9/11, before the whole world got a little harder. Still, some of them are so gray! I make note of the fact that I am not yet gray, like those old people. I also am not as put together as the men in beautiful suits, minus the tie, the women in capes with asymmetrical hairdos, some of whom are actually speaking French to their children because they really are French. I am also not as dumpy as the thick women in sweat suits or the former football players, who still fill up the whole hallway. Of course, this is not about my son, because, when you’re in a high school, well, you’re in high school. I’m not the only one who is keeping track.

Here, in this ivy-league town, people are on edge about college. I can feel it. I hear it in the way the father in the Algebra 2 class raises his hand to ask about the grading. I hear it in the way the parent in English class asks the 23-year-old substitute teacher, filling in for someone on maternity leave, if there will be a visiting writer this year. She, um, isn’t really like sure? But she is totally into English and books, and wears short boots with her mini-dress, so I love her because I know she would totally let me sit at the lunch table with her.

I stick mostly to myself, except for the one other parent I recognize, Stephen, in my band class. I wave at him too much, then act a little aloof to make up for it.

I am wearing a black dress—duh—and short black boots. Ok, they’re rain boots this time around, but they could be combat boots, and in my mind, I am still Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club. I keep my green raincoat on, for protection, but I keep the hood down, to show I am open to meeting new people.

In Chemistry class, the teacher is the cool, hip guy. He only cares about learning, not grades. While he is talking, a skinny girl with green hair walks by in the hall. She catches my eye. “A dollar,” she says, pointing to the brownies she is selling. “It goes to help feed kids,” she says. I want to talk to her, but I shake my head no and look back at the teacher, afraid that he will call me out. She would shun me in the lunch room anyway.

Gym class, well, you can imagine. We are in the bleachers and they—all seven gym teachers and coaches—are sitting in a row on the gym floor. They have a microphone. I don’t know where to put my feet with the big rain boots, the bleachers are so narrow. By the time I figure it out, the main gym teacher lets us go early.

In Japanese class, I want to stay longer. There is going to be an exchange next week. There will be meditation for fifteen minutes each class. The people are a little odd, but geeky too. They want to succeed, but in a creative way.

The bell rings and I find my way out of the building. “Do we have to go to homeroom?” I ask a woman rushing down the stairs, but she ignores me, or maybe doesn’t hear me, so I find my way back—out the door, across the street, home, where my son is waiting to hear about my day.



Wild Kingdom

July 19, 2016 § 4 Comments


I am in bed, reading, in a house I would call empty. I am the only human here, and my dog, Annie, is stretched out on the wood floor beside the bed. I am absorbed. It is Elena Ferrante. I have drunk the kool-aid this summer, and the book is due back in the library in two days. There is a waiting list. I only have about 100 pages. This is my plan for the night. Earlier today, I cut all but four of Annie’s nails. She was done with the pedicure before I was. That’s why she makes such a racket when she gets up, prancing around.

I am in Naples still, but I notice the sound. Then I see it. The orange and black snake that has been missing for a few days is wrapped around her legs. I don’t scream, but I drop the book and jump out of bed. Annie jumps into the laundry basket of dirty clothes in the corner. The snake slides under my bed. I call Jeff.

“Grab her!” he says, as if this is something I can do. I know that when he and the boys go snake hunting, they take a pillowcase, so I slip the case off my pillow and onto my hand like a glove. I keep an eye on the snake. She comes my way and I grab her. She is a liquid muscle. More like a fish out of water than anything else I might have felt. She is fast and unattached, constantly moving. I’m afraid she will bite me. The pillowcase has too high of a thread count for this. I am too scared that I will crush her with my grip, pillowcase or no. I have no idea where her snake organs are. She slips away.

Annie is way out of here, downstairs, safe on her bed. It is just me and Terra, the snake. I have chased her into Jack Henry’s room, where her terrarium is. Jeff was cleaning it, you see, and he forgot to weight down the lid. If you have read this blog before, you know that she does not like to be confined. She has explored the walls of two houses. I am on her side now. I want to set her free.

“Grab her!” Jeff says.

“I can’t,” I say.

“You can! You have to!

“She’ll bite me.”

“That snake is totally domesticated,” Jeff says, but she coils up in Jack Henry’s closet, looks at me, ready to strike.

“I am not going to grab her,” I say.

“With a table cloth?”


“With an oven mitt?’


Jeff and I are texting back and forth and calling. He is in a loud place in New York City. I am alone with the snake. Abandoned even by the dog. I am trying to catch her only because I love my son and I know he would be heartbroken if she got away. We’ve been through a lot together, Jack Henry, this snake, and I.

“Oh my god! She’s eating the mouse!” I say.

I should explain that since she went missing a few days ago, Jeff went to PetSmart. Jack Henry is away, so Jeff left a box with a dead mouse in it in the floor of Jack Henry’s room to entice the snake. She finds it and begins to feed.

“Oh! This is disgusting,” I say. “She’s like, dragging it away!”

“You’ve never seen this? It’s been going on in the house about every two weeks for almost seven years,” Jeff says.

“I know!” I say, “But I never had to look at it.” The snake is ambitious. She opens her mouth wide and at the same time wraps her body around the small white mouse. I leave the room to give her a little privacy.

“What do I do?” I ask.

“Go get the trashcan and put it over her,” Jeff says.

“While she’s eating? What if I piss her off? “

“She’s not pissed off, or she wouldn’t be eating,” Jeff says.

I run to get the trashcan and put it on top of her.

“Weight it down!” Jeff says. I put a brick on top. “Put your eight pound weight on top of that!” Jeff says. I do it.

I text Jeff a photo, just to be sure.

“Good job, Ms. Irwin,” he says.

I pour myself a glass of wine. It will be a while before I can get my mind back to Naples. The Wild Kingdom is just down the hall.


Biscuit Line

June 8, 2016 § 7 Comments


It is early June and only now have the lavender Rhododendrons in my neighbor’s yard decided to bloom, something I’m used to seeing in April. The plants here are full and happy. They thrive on a constant cool mist and blossoms stick around for weeks, even the peonies, which are shed like itchy party dresses after a day or two of blooming in North Carolina. I guess there might be something to this whole “Garden State” thing. But still, even though it has warmed up and things are blooming, it doesn’t feel close to summer. Something’s missing.

I call Jeff in New Orleans and there is a loud buzz in the background. “What’s that?” I ask. “Frogs,” he says. “I had twenty-six tree frogs on the outside of my window screen last night. They’re everywhere. There’s a mama fox and three babies under my studio.”

New Orleans is chock full of life, it seems—Jeff even sends me pictures of the luscious crawfish and oysters he eats. This, I think, is mean to do to someone in the Northeast, where living things keep space between them.

I miss all of those creatures roaming around, even the bugs. Ok, maybe not the “Palmetto Bugs” or Camel Crickets, but I miss the sounds of summer in the South—the owls, the cicadas, all chiming in as the sun sets. Life is quieter up here. Maybe it is just slower to wake up to summer.

Jeff continues to send me pictures of his dinners and tell me tales of feasts he’s invited to. So now, my stomach misses summer in the south too. I vow to try to grow some “Jersey Tomatoes,” but I admit, I’m snobby about them. What kind of tomato could New Jersey grow that North Carolina couldn’t top? I long for my old garden, for summer below the biscuit line.

It recently came to my attention that my colleague from Nova Scotia knew nothing about this line. We are riding a train to DC and I wonder aloud if we have crossed it. He is puzzled. “You know,” I say, “the biscuit line: the line where McDonalds starts selling bagels instead of biscuits.”

“Biscuits? You mean, like cookies?” he says. I am aghast. Sure, he is Canadian, but he doesn’t know what a biscuit is. I have never met a human who does not know what a biscuit is. Our seatmates and I try to explain. “It’s savory,” I say. “And it involves a lot of butter.”

“Like a scone?” he asks.

“No. It’s soft and warm.”

“You eat it with gravy,” a woman from West Virginia sitting next to me offers.

“Gravy?” he says.

“Yes. I say. It’s delicious. I can’t believe you’ve never had a biscuit,” I say. “I’m going to have to cook for you.”

It’s these things, the ones I take for granted, that I miss the most– the abundance of life, the availability of comfort foods. Soak them up, people South of the Biscuit line. Soak them up.


April 24, 2016 § Leave a comment



I’ll admit it: sometimes this past year, I’ve gone into Trader Joe’s just to have a casual conversation with a stranger. The check outs are named for streets around here, and I can imagine it’s a real microcosm of this university town. It never fails, by the way—if you make eye contact with the beardy guy working the register, you’ll hear about meditation tips, somebody’s sister who moved to North Carolina, the virtues of baby kale. That kind of recognition of life’s ups and downs that is part and parcel of grocery shopping in the south is rare around here in the public world, and it’s enough to push me toward TJ’s– especially on cold rainy Sunday nights when the upcoming week seems a chore. I’ve often wondered what they do in the back of the store besides stocking, how they keep that glow year-round. They’re always so damn happy!

But  it’s finally real spring in the north. Dogwoods and everything. Redbuds! Maybe the check out guys just spent the afternoon outside, contemplating the end of the semester, the upcoming summer so far from the frozen foods aisle, floating in some green-brown lake near a cabin, or on an aqua and sand beach in California. Maybe they’re thinking of moving again, like me. Not across the country, just across town, but still, to a new and better settling place. Marking a spot for the next few years can bring a sort of calm and steadiness that might make someone think you’re high.

Sure, I know what I have ahead of me before I really get that Trader Joe’s happy: gathering my life full of stuff and picking it up, the whole weight of it, dragging it along a full mile or so, even if my feet and hands blister with the constant rubbing of skin against raw rope. But I’m ready. I might even get a few live plants from the vegetable aisle, put down at least annual roots.

By the time I leave Trader Joe’s this time, it’s not even dark. The days are longer and the sun is finishing its set across the parking lot in warm oranges and purples. Before I drive home, I sit for a minute in my car with the radio on, tuned to the blues show I’ve come to set my weekend clock by. May’s around the corner; summer stretches out in my imagination. And you wouldn’t believe the health benefits of baby kale.