Friday, December 30, 2005


Growing up, I was the envy of all my friends. Not because I was pretty, popular or smart, but because of my parents.

My mother and father were hip, clever, casual, fun. They were Berkeley kids of the sixties and knew how it was. There wasn't a lot to get away with, but they were there. As adults my childhood friends tell me they envied my family, though most of them had intact, solid homes.

My family was casual, but far from spontaneous. We drew heavy curtains, waited for dark to fall. We knew all the ways people love and we practiced and perfected our skills. We knew the meaning of appropriate, and when it was more charming not to be.

Now I look back on family vacation photos, and though the memories are often sweet, I am bathed in sympathy and self-pity for the skinny girl in the pictures. Her hair is never quite right and she holds herself in an uneven way. I can smell her time coming. I can feel it.

There is always something left unsaid. I race to unearth it, give it life. I'm afraid that if I continue this way, I'll lose my way. I'm following my instincts now, trying to tie up loose ends, reaching for the moments.

My family is not what it once was to me. They are skeletons and ghosts and witches and goblins. They are saints and poets and martyrs. Fiction and fact are all the same here. That's why it's hard, why the promise lies in the joints.

My mother is feline, loving, selfish. My father a dog, braced with loyalty, upheld by instinct and honor. Though I pity the foursome in the photos with Macaws on their shoulders and drinks in flower-adorned coconuts, I'm glad their story doesn't finish there. There's not great waves of light, but there are moments, I promise, just wait and see.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


Before his hand shook, my father drew perfect eyelashes, sailor’s anchors and hearts pierced with cupid's bow, all on a face he adored.

A clown face. A face mismatched with tears and laughter. My brother would later tell me about an old Mexican tattoo tradition. “Laugh now, cry later” is the phrase. He has my name stitched in blue-black on his forearm, a pretty senorita looking a bit to the side, the hint of clown's makeup on her profile, my telltale birthmark above her left eye.

In prison the tradition is to tattoo a tear below the eye, a badge of sorts. Proof of suffering, bearing witness and a way to bypass the real thing. I don’t know when the shaking began, but like many second children, my brother was not graced with my lashes, my heart and arrow. When our hands meet, mine holds his steady for a fleeting moment, but my father taught us to always let go. The two of them tremble like leaves and stand like Oaks.

Until recently, I believed I too might inherit my father’s tremor. His mother, my sweet grandmother who denied the damp backs of her forefathers with perfect English, also writes shaky earthquake letters, a gift of blood. But now I’m reading, reading too much too long. Reading about this war, trying so hard to blur the lines. But my eyes don't fail me and I'm learning shaking hands come from other places. Tremors, they say, are not always simply a gift of genetics. While sweet grandmothers may inherit them by birth, fathers often come by them through a fine mist rained down on foreign lands.

Now I’m seeing the faint outline of grease paint on my father. He mocks my brother's badges, calls him less than a man. But the truth is slowly emerging, like the secret agent ink we used to grapple over out of cereal boxes. My mothers lemons always coaxed out the messages, like omens and whispers, tart and irresistible.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


My father is staying with me these last few days. Sick with a cold of some kind he insists on sleeping in the back room, doesn’t want to disturb me with coughing fits deep into the night. Of all my father’s health concerns, his chest has never really alarmed me. Even though he was in the hospital for Christmas a decade ago, even though a common cold quickly turns into atypical pneumonia doctors take weeks to diagnose, it was only recently I became worried.

It is because he’s talking to me, confiding in me. He went to the doctor because he was waking at night, evey night with chills, fevers, sweating. The doctor looked him over and he tells me that he told the doctor that his tremor wouldn’t get him, neither would the disease his father had, it wouldn’t be his heart or cancer, he told the doctor that it would be his lungs that would catch up with him. I am so fucking horrified by this. I cannot conceive of my father dying and going on. I would like to make an official request to the universe that I get him, in acceptable health, for at least another 25 years. That is what I want.

Earlier he had dozed off a couple of times watching TV with me, this is common. He pushes himself for me, I know. Finally he says goodnight and goes into my cold back room where I’ve laid a sheet across the couch and place a quilt I made, my first quilt, folded in half across it. And a couple of hours later I’m ready for bed and I hesitate, know how cold it is back there, I can hear him snoring. I finally decide to cover him with a second quilt and quietly creep into the backroom, carefully, without making a single small sound.

He is deep asleep, still. I slowly raise my arms and begin to lower the quilt, as if onto a sleeping bear. And the moment the edge of the quilt brushes his calf, buried below a sheet and the first quilt he is up like a jackrabbit. Literally is upright in a split second and I jump and immediately apologize to his disoriented and darkened face, just a little scared and more regretful. He is fine, he says no problem, he says he is warm and I leave.

I go to bed myself with a pit in my stomach. I’m not sure why. I wonder what he dreams about. I wonder how long this will last, will he jump from his sleep when he’s 70? Will he propel cats across the room from a deep slumber? Will this always be here? I snuggle deeper into my own quilts, shiver from the chill in this winter air and think hard on light things, fireflies and dusk in late spring.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

September, 1968

 Posted by HelloMy mother and her friend, a nice Southern girl who my mom met dealing cards in Tahoe, drank a bottle of cheap blush and then convinced my grandmother, the one who scrubbed the tub after every bath, to lay on the diningroom floor so my mother could pierce her ears.

"I was so drunk I forgot to numb the second lobe!" my mother giggles 35 years after she forgot the ice, 20 after she 'got sober', 5 after she disappeared for a week.

I look carefully now at my grandmother's 90 year old lobes. They are soft and stretched and when I ask her how long she's had the holes she tells me, "Oh, I had it done just last week. That oriental girl at the salon you know." I look into her milky eyes and wish I could shrink into one of those big opal studs and go back in time. Watch from her lobe at all that has passed. Smell my grandpa's cologne when they embrace, whisper in her ear to punish my mother, make her sit in a corner. Tell her to write a second letter to that dark-skinned boy in Vietnam.

That same month my grandmother felt the dull needle casually pierce, my father realized he was afraid. After an overnight flight, a stop in Japan, he and hundreds of other boys deplaned to the mindnumbing heat that would cradle him for 11 months.

"When we got off the plane, the guys who were leaving were waiting to board," he tells me now from his little home hidden in the mountains, deep in the forests of Northern California. I nod, a coward behind the camera. "They watched us from behind the fence and all I remember is one guy looking straight at me as I came down the stairs, and I heard him say, 'You guys are fucked'".

Monday, February 28, 2005

Song of the South

When I was a kid, my father loved the movie Song of the South. Actually, I don't remember ever seeing it with him, but he used to sing the 'Zip-a-dee-do-da" song and in moments of challenge he loved to mimic Brer Rabbit and in a deep southern accent squeal "Please don't throw me in the Briar patch!" Or the punchline that came once Brer Fox thought he had inflicted the ultimate punishment on the smartass rabbit: "I was born and bred in a briar patch!"

I just thought it was one of those things that tickled him, but today I know my father is Brer Rabbit. He has always dared the worst, and nothing pleases him more than to really piss someone off, especially anyone he considers an asshole.

After six months in Colorado Springs of typing orders and being demoted and promoted again, my father finally beat time and grade - he was promoted to an E3.

On a free weekend my father took off one deep evening riding motorcycles with his buddies. That day he'd spent swimming in the river, probably drinking too. He tells me now he sped through the dark barefoot and in only a swimsuit. Reckless and young, he can't tell me now what he was thinking. "Just living like the young do," he says. No driver's license or ID, well past the speed limit the police pulled him over and took him in. After being identified he tells me the military police picked him up and escorted him back to base cold and cocky to boot. He smirks when he tells me this story. He leans back in his office chair and the snow falls heavy outside the window behind him.

Demoted back to E1, the charges were thrown out of military court. With less than a month away from Vietnam my father was released on his final three weeks leave. Back in Berkeley, he strode the streets, hung with friends, drank deep into the night for three, four, five weeks. Nothing to lose is what I read. When he arrived back in Colorado, he was demoted back to E1 for being AWOL but his superiors tell him his judge and jury await him overseas, that is his only punishment. Four days later he takes his first step in Vietnam and is immediately promoted.

“You can’t be an E1 they said, that’s a training classification, so they put me to E2 again.”

Given a job at Army headquarters, four days in a general asks why he is still an E2 and promoted him on the spot to E3. My father tells me that it was not the culture shock that assaulted his system initially, but the time change. Because army headquarters staff had to communicate with US troops, they worked through the night. He indicates the late hours and lack of sleep put people on edge, fucked with your mind. Late one night in those first weeks he pushed paper, my father was reprimanded by a superior, a lieutenant, I think he said.

My father ignored the guy who he tells me yelled at him after 3 am one night in the office. He finally got frustrated and pushed my father. The lieutenant was punched squarely in the face and quickly demanded a court-marshall. The general who was in charge of both took pity and privately told my father while he couldn’t erase the indiscretion, “You did punch an officer”, he could minimize the consequences.

“There was always this threat they would use," my dad tells me now, sober and unfazed. "We’re going to send you to the 108th, the 108th.” He repeats the number, I don't think he knows he does, it's like a skip. The 108th was the furthest north in Vietnam you could get. It was one of those things, 'don’t throw me in the briar patch,'" He smiles at me now. I can hear him squealing those lines and making me giggle as a kid. "Cause that’s where my cousin Bob was," he finishes.

Bob was a couple of years older than my dad, his father's brother's eldest son, and happened to be stationed in the 108th. My father says the lieutenant wanted blood.

"So they told him they would just send me to the 108th and he said 'fine, good'. When I ask him if the lieutenant thought he was going to die, he answers, “Yeah, he knew I was going to this place that everyone was afraid of. He thought I was going to hell.”

Monday, January 31, 2005

So there is this moment caught on tape. It is the only moment I kind of remember and it is what is keeping me from watching again, keeping me from writing anymore.

I’m interviewing my father, I can’t tell you right now what about. But I’m interviewing him and suddenly when I move to ask a question I freeze. Not just for a second. My whole brain seizes up and suddenly not only can I not remember the question, but I can’t think of a new one. I interview for a living, lose my train of thought all the time. I’m great at transitioning into something else, an expert at picking up the ball and moving with it even if I’m distracted, uninterested, elsewhere. But at this moment I lose it, and what I know is on that tape is a stretch of silence where I’m groping for words. It is that moment that I don’t remember well, but I know my mind and I know when I watch it again and see my father’s face, listen to my staggered words after that stretch of silence that I will remember how it felt and maybe even catch a glimpse of what it felt like. I don’t want to remember what was behind that moment, I want to erase it from time.

I’ve already erased part of it. That interview took two tapes. We got in country, I can’t tell you where or when now but we got there and I’ve lost one of the tapes. Searched everywhere but I’ve misplaced it for good it seems. I looked in my jewelry box the other day and wondered at the crappy earrings I’ve held onto for over 20 years, marveled at the pearl necklace my grandmother gave me when I was three. I am good at holding on.

So here I sit struggling to hold onto all this. I keep going back to something I wrote down after beginning all this: “When it gets hard, remember, this is important.” I wrote it after doing research on Vietnam. Reading about the veterans who beat their children bloody. The ones who chained there dark-haired petite wives to garden gates at night, the ones who sit in easy chairs today and read war books over and over, who still breathe the oil slick of that faraway place.

I’m rusty now, and reeling. Trying to navigate my way back to the place where I can write something that means anything. There are so many half-truths here. So many sentences I can't quite finish.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Time and Grade

In the army, all GI’s are ranked E1 in basic training and are naturally promoted to E2 upon completion. He tells me now there is something called time and grade, if you mind your p’s and q’s for awhile you are naturally promoted over time. E1, E2, E3, etc.

My father was promoted to an E2 and demoted back to E1 more times than he can count, for fighting, going AWOL, assaulting an officer. The first time he was demoted he tells me the fight was with a crazy fucker. He says the guy randomly picked him and attacked. He tells me they started to throw punches, scuffled and were quickly pulled apart.

I have watched my father randomly confronted a dozen times in my life -- in a shoe store, at the zoo. He lets off a scent that draws people in, he is magnetic. They come to him and they want to argue, to hurt him, I always thought for no reason. After the fight he tells me the crazy guy had scratches on his face so they were called in by superiors. My dad says he was threatened with a demotion and told he had to write an essay on why fighting was wrong and apologize. He refused to do either and was bumped back to an E1. This was the first of many times, he tells me with a smile.

This time I question him.

“Do you know why he wanted to fight you?” I ask. Instead of answering he adds to his defense.

“A few weeks later that guy also attacked this other guy, a guy we called Preacher,” he says. “This kid was scrawny and carried his bible with him everywhere he went. Everyone was up in arms when he went after Preacher, everyone.

Several weeks after he was pushed back up to E2 my father and the crazy guy were walking down a staircase. He says the guy mouthed off to him, he doesn’t specify and I don’t ask. Called him a dickhead maybe? A pussy? Maybe he called him a spic, a wetback? Anyway, this man smarted off heading south on a staircase, and when he turned around to continue - or maybe to laugh - my father, four steps higher, kicked him squarely in the forehead. My father laughs at this memory. I laugh too and delight a little at our caveman nature. Marvel for a second at what brutality does: protection, admiration, courage, freedom. He cups his meathook over his face and says, “He had this huge knot.” We laugh again.

My father’s skin is deep brown, gold underneath. His fingers are thick and unforgiving, oil-stained and like tree bark. He can rub a pumice stone smooth. His hands are not built for moving across piano keys or fine handwork, he is a man you see holding a handsaw not a needle. However in the army GI’s are expected to sew on their own stripes, one for E1’s, a pair for E2’s. And the eight times my father was promoted to E2 and demoted again, I can see his thick hands holding steady, cradling a fine silver needle, and weaving in and out on that stripe. In and out of a place in between, like the space between heaven and hell, only easier it seems. Then I watch him pause a moment, lift the fabric and with a clean sharp razor blade rip those same stitches free, over and over and over.

His commanding officer also laughed when my dad was escorted back into his office He said, “I hope you haven’t sewn your stripes on all your uniforms.” I don’t know if he did or not, but he tells me he didn’t fight with that guy again. This whole conversation he is vague and paints this guy as a random freak, a violent predator, but when I ask him if he remembers his name, there is not a seconds hesitation, Barry Sanderson. When I ask him if he remembers everyone’s names, he says yes, the guys he hung out with anyway.

I see Barry Sanderson when he was six, a year after he lost his right big toe because his father couldn’t teach him to stay away from the ax used for splitting oak. Suddenly I imagine the small white rabbit he called Sundae and kept in a wood barrel in his closet, and the girl he raped when he was 13. How he cried when she wouldn’t be his friend anymore, how he swore he loved her like no other.