Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Ten

This is Part Ten of my book, Face, A Memoir. In this excerpt, I remember my grandmother's cottage, and go off to kindergarten just a few months after the accident. (Continued from Part Nine.)

 

July 21, 1961 - Surgeon’s notes:  Surgery to assess extent of injury and healing to date. Patient’s cheek and eye are stabilized enough to send her home. Additional surgery to be scheduled for the fall.

 

My grandmother’s cottage on Lake Michigan was a cozy place, with a screened-in porch that connected to the living room. Once, a bat flew down the chimney and into the porch, and lighted upon the back of a wicker chair. What an inexplicable thing, for a bat to wing its way down a brick chimney and fly through the cottage. Amid our excited squeals, my grandmother ushered all of us into the main room in the cottage and shut the glass doors as my grandpa put on leather gloves and went out to the porch. We pressed our faces against the glass and watched. I held my breath as he gently pried the tiny creature from the back of the chair. It resisted, opening and flapping its wings even as Grandpa closed his leathered hands around it. I could feel my heart beating hard as I watched him walk to the side door and release the bat to the darkened sky. I was awestruck. It was the most tender thing I ever witnessed.

 

The summer after the accident we spent a lot of time at the cottage, playing with my cousins. It was out past my grandparents’ small house in Glenside, on the west side of Muskegon. Before the lake began to rise in the late 1960s and early ’70s, there was a small boathouse and sailboat tethered at the bottom of the stairs to the beach.

A large plate-glass window stretched across the front of the cottage. The expansive view took in all the majesty of Lake Michigan, from its glittery thundering waves in springtime to the cloud-covered buildup of icebergs along the shore in winter. The main room was furnished in wicker and bamboo furniture with brightly colored cushions. The whole interior was paneled in pine. On one side of the room a large wooden cupboard held dozens of multi-colored Fiestaware: plates, bowls and cups, salt and pepper shakers, pitchers. The various colors made meals at the cottage seem like a perpetual celebration. There was a dining room table near the kitchen, a tiny space that looked onto a sun porch where we often had breakfast. There were big shutters over the sun porch’s screens, and it took the strength of an adult to pull the chains to open them. The chill morning breezes would flood the porch, along with the sun. Oatmeal never tasted so good.

There were three bedrooms, two off the main room and one off the kitchen. My grandma and grandpa always slept in the front bedroom, which was connected to the other by a tiny bath, also paneled in pine. My grandfather died at the cottage when I was eight. Fell asleep next to my grandmother and never woke up. 

Every year in the early spring, probably April or May, my grandparents, parents and uncles “opened” the cottage for the summer. They took down the heavy wooden storm shutters that covered all the windows and aired everything out. It would have been imprudent to try to spend a winter there. Snowstorms were too severe, especially at the lake, where cold blasts froze the shoreline into icebergs that often stretched half a mile out.

In the fall, just before the first snows, the family would spend a day or two shuttering it up once again. There was a huge piece of plywood that was nailed over the front entry, and on it was painted, “Stay Out. Poison Gas.”

 

“This is Marcia,” Miss Black says.

I am standing next to her chair and all the children are sitting on the floor in front of us. She has her arm around me, and I feel safe.

“Her face looks like this because she was in a bad car accident.”

I look out at their faces. It is my first day of kindergarten, not quite three months after the accident. I don’t understand why this is necessary, but I will come to love Miss Black for thinking to do this.

I am vaguely aware of my mom standing off to the side.

Earlier that morning we had walked the several blocks from my house to Nelson Elementary School. I remember feeling anxious, but also excited. There were a lot of kids on the playground when we arrived, and I wanted to play, but I stood close to Mom, watching. Miss Black and the other kindergarten teacher came out and lined us up at the classroom door before we were allowed to enter.

The classroom seemed huge. There were tables with paints and clay, and a playhouse area with pint-sized kitchen appliances, including a stove and sink and cupboards. I played in the playhouse, pretending to make dinner like my mom. One of my favorite activities was “reading circle,” when we would sit on the big rug and Miss Black would read storybooks.

For snacks we had graham crackers with chocolate frosting, and at naptime we each had our own colorful mat to lie on until it was time to go home at noon. No one ever asked about my face or teased me that school year. I felt like a normal kid.

 

Automobile factories and wood pulping mills fueled the economy of my hometown – and all of Western Michigan – in the mid-twentieth century. When the wind blew from the north, the stench from the paper mill on the southern edge of Muskegon Lake wafted over all of downtown. My mom’s best friend, Norma, lived with her family in the suburb of North Muskegon on the north side of the lake. Muskegon Heights, which was primarily African-American, was just east and south of downtown. Two of the three Meier Cleaners plants my dad operated were in Muskegon Heights, and when I was old enough to work for him, it was there I learned about prejudice and – from my dad – tolerance. On the southwest, as the city population expanded, the suburb of Norton Shores grew. My parents would build a house there when I was in junior high.

Routine, it’s said, breeds boredom, but it also establishes place and time and provides a stability that can be comforting when all else around you is in turmoil. We walked to St. Joe’s for Mass every Sunday and saw all the Meier clan. My dad continued to go to work early every morning. Supper was always on the table at six, just after Dad walked through the door. We sat down together, and Dad said the blessing: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost… Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive …

We ate the same meal every night: meat, potatoes and canned vegetables. Sometimes we would have a Jell-O salad with celery or mandarin oranges. I hated that Jell-O salad. Something about the combination of a soft, wiggly substance with the crunchy celery repulsed me. After dinner, we always had dessert, usually homemade pie or cake with ice cream. If there was no pie or cake, we made do with cookies. My father loved dessert. Even years later, when it was only my mom and dad at home, they still shared dessert every night – a comforting routine, one of the many daily constructs we create to ignore the passage of time.

In Michigan, the seasons are distinct, glaringly so. Winter punishes with its icy blasts of wind and snow. Drifts grow and wither with each passing storm, moving from one side of the road to the other, or building to piles on the beaches and parks. Spring was walking to church on Easter morning wearing a pale yellow or pink Easter dress and matching straw hat, my gloved hand thrust between my dad’s strong, boxy fingers. Tulips and daffodils greeted us from the neighbors’ gardens as we walked to church. Summer was swimming in Lake Michigan with my dad and siblings at dusk, the lake water still warm from the day, then running up the stairs to have s’mores by the fireside as mosquitoes buzzed our ears. Fall, well, fall is my favorite time of year. The leaves changing color on the maples, oaks and elms; the acrid smell of leaf piles smoldering in the street after a day of raking. The sweet bite of the apples we bought from the vendor who drove the streets hawking fruit from the back of his truck.

We had a milkman who placed fresh bottles of milk at the front door every two or three days. And the “egg man” – a local farmer – brought fresh eggs to the house every week. There was a farmer’s market on the outskirts of town every Saturday where in summer we bought cherries, blueberries and raspberries, tomatoes, peaches and plums. In fall, we bought apples and pears, and in winter, butternut and acorn squashes filled the stalls. In the summer months, my mother would often buy a bushel of one fruit or another and then spend the next several days canning.

All of these things happened predictably – year after year – creating a sense of serenity and comfort in the certainty of sameness. And every few months I went into the hospital for more surgery. 

(To be continued...)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Nine

Part Nine of my memoir, Face. In this excerpt, I continue to remember my dad and what he meant to me.

 

My dad made me feel like I was floating in the warm summer waves of Lake Michigan, placid and enveloping as dusk falls, protected and lifted up and held gently in the lapping waters. Like I had just won the biggest jackpot that exists. Like my world would crumble and splinter into a million pieces if he left me. While Mom was with me through the surgeries, a concrete ghost, he was always in the background, an assurance that comforted and allowed me to dwell in a safe space.

I don’t have any memories of my dad visiting me in the hospital, though I know he did. Perhaps he came in the evenings after work, to spell Mom. Or he might have come in the afternoons. I don’t remember. But I know he came, because the nurses were on a first-name basis with him.

My dad was a member of the Optimist Club for more than fifty years, and when I was little, the club had a Father-Daughter Dinner every year. Dad had three girls, so once every three years I got to be his special “date.” Mom would buy me a fancy dress with a tulle skirt, and sometimes I’d wear gloves and black patent leather shoes with buckles. It was the only time outside of Easter that I got a new dress. After dinner, the men would stand up and sing to us, all the old standards including “Tea for Two,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and show tunes like “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”

I was enthralled, with all those men, and with my dad. At the end of the night, they sang, “Goodnight, ladies! Goodnight, ladies! Goodnight, ladies! We’re going to leave you now.” Which made me feel sad and happy at the same time.

When we are young, certain experiences become concrete in our memories, and this is one of them. I am sitting next to my dad. Long rows of tables are set with dishes and glassware, and everyone seems to know my dad, wants to shake his hand and say hello. I am so proud to be his daughter. No one says it, no one shows it, that his daughter’s face is disfigured, like a wax figure whose face is melted, whose eye is wilted. I am with my dad, who loves me, and those men, who acknowledge through their actions and their unspoken understanding they know: I could be anyone’s child. Thank God for these good men, who held my dad in love and respect, who held me in a place of acceptance – for my dad, and for me.

My dad was the only one who made me feel like Marcia, not the scarred child, but the bright spirit I knew dwelled within. There is a photograph of me taken probably a week or two before the accident. In it I am standing next to my older sister, leaning in toward her with my hands on my hips, smiling as if I had just gotten away with something really naughty. That is the Marcia my dad knew and loved unconditionally. It is the Marcia I lost.

When he died, I felt like someone blasted the rock I stood upon to smithereens, like the world had suddenly turned from safe to perilous, and I didn’t know how to find solid footing.

On the day of his funeral, friends and family gathered at the Catholic parish where Mom and Dad belonged for nearly thirty years. A couple of days earlier Mom and I had met with the parish priest, who said he would do the service though he didn’t really know my dad. I wanted to do the eulogy, and the priest kept trying to dissuade me. Finally I prevailed. But that morning, I wasn’t sure I could stand and talk about him without falling apart. I remember asking him to be with me and give me strength, and when I stood to go up to the lectern to speak, I found a sense of purpose and calm I hadn’t before. I talked about how much he’d meant to me, how much he’d given me, and how grateful I was for him, and for Mom, through all those years of surgeries.

One of the things I found most touching on that morning was all the guys who golfed on Wednesday mornings at Community Golf Course gave up their games to be with us, and Dad.

 

Several years after my dad’s death, I was at a loss to understand my mom’s inexplicable distance. Why was she so quiet? Why did she answer my questions with single-word answers, with shrugs? I wondered what I should have been doing for her, what I was lacking. She was so happy with my sisters and my brother; quiet and strained with me.

Finally, it occurred to me that she might be jealous of my relationship with Dad.

I couldn’t imagine. No mother would feel that way, would she? And if she did, I certainly never saw it. I think about the way she removed herself when I was with Dad, disappeared to knit in the den, or headed upstairs while we watched TV downstairs. Even now as I write this it sounds so inconceivable. But, then – perhaps.

My parents married in 1948, twenty-somethings full of confidence as the nation was recovering from war and creating a future of possibility. He joined the family business; she had an English degree and was teaching at a local junior high. They settled into a small house – purchased from my dad’s parents − in 1949. Cherie was born in September 1950, followed shortly by Ricky and Robert, the two boys they lost. I was born at Mercy Hospital on Christmas Eve 1955. My brother, Chuck, followed in September 1957, and then my youngest sister, Molly, in September 1960.

Our house had two stories, with white clapboard siding and a long, glass-fronted porch that stretched the length of the house. There was a wooden front door that opened into a small vestibule where winter boots and coats were stored. A stairway to the left and just inside the front door went up to the second story, where we had a bathroom and three bedrooms.

In the front hallway was the little telephone table where my mom was sitting when I was hurt. The living room off to the right stretched almost the entire length of the house and opened at both the front hallway and the dining room, which was between the hallway and the kitchen at the back of the house. Flecked wallpaper in crimson and black lined the dining room walls, and the living room had beige carpeting and equally bland walls. There was a blond console TV against one wall. I watched the assassination of President Kennedy on that TV, and Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, and swooned when the The Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Off the kitchen was a stair that led to the back door on the alley and then down to the basement. It was damp and dark there. Shelves held dozens of canned goods and storage boxes, and there was a washer and dryer against one block wall. A tiny window high above the laundry let in a small bit of natural light, and a bare overhead bulb hung from the ceiling.

I saw my mom cry for the first time in the basement. She was sitting on a small chair among the laundry, and I had crept down the stairs halfway to see where she was. Then I realized she was weeping softly. I don’t know why, but I knew it was because of me, because of all the pain I’d caused her and the family. And I didn’t know how to make it better, to make her happy again. So I just sat there, watching her from the darkened stairs.

I keep coming back to the basement. Monsters and ghosts, and my mother weeping. Once, there was a tornado warning. I was seven or eight. Tornados were not uncommon in Michigan, but this one was serious enough that my dad came home from work. He made us all go down into the basement, Mom, Cherie, me, Chuck and Molly. But he stood near the back steps and stared out the kitchen window. At one point I crept up the stairs, wanting to be near him, worried for him. He admonished me back down to the basement.

So I sat with Mom, anxious and fretting. I am trying to put myself back in that space, trying to remember how she was. I was so worried about Dad, I didn’t notice her demeanor. Perhaps she tried to soothe us. Was she holding Molly on her lap? Was Chuckie clinging to her side? I know I would not be mollified. I was certain Dad would be taken, pulled out the window by the tornado, and I would never see him again.

(Continued here.)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Four

This is Part Four of Face, A Memoir. In Parts One, Two and Three, we find out I have been hit by a car at the age of five and have lost my left cheek and eyelid. After five weeks in the hospital, I come home, and my mom and dad prepare my sister and brother for a Marcia whose face was ravaged.

Part Four

“Marcia is coming home this afternoon, and she looks different than she did,” my mom explained. “You shouldn’t be afraid when you see her. She’s still your sister. She’s still the same Marcia.”

But I wasn’t.

I looked grotesque. A thick fleshy string connected my upper and lower eyelids. There was a gaping hole underneath my left eye where the skin had been torn away. A red ridge of scar tissue ran the length of my left cheek, with thinner spines spreading out like a spider web toward my nose and ear. A jagged pink scar jutted down from my lower lip toward my chin.

How did they respond to my face? Chuckie was so little, only three. But Cherie was ten, and had seen me on the street, my face torn away. She remembers that Mom told her she would have to help a lot, because I would need a lot of care. But she doesn’t recall being surprised or shocked at how I looked.

“I think I was sad,” Cherie said, “and I was prepared to help with whatever Mom needed.”

 

A few weeks after I came home, we went shopping downtown.

Mom didn’t often take us downtown. It meant putting Molly into a stroller and tethering Chuck to it with a harness. I was allowed to walk freely, but liked to go off exploring when mom wasn’t looking. That often led to frantic searches and stern scoldings once she found me. But off we went.

We were in Hardy-Herpelsheimers, then the nicest department store in Muskegon. Mom was looking at some dresses and I was uncharacteristically clinging to her. A woman came around one of the displays with her two children and stopped short.

“Oh, my God,” I heard her say. She turned and pulled her children away. “Kids, don’t look at that little girl.”

My mom didn’t say anything, just pulled my head in close to her and held me there, in the middle of the store. We left then, without buying anything, and walked home.

 

Now that I am a mother, I wonder at her ability to withstand it all. I look at photographs of myself after the accident, and I think, could I have done this? How did she feel, knowing her daughter would be disfigured probably for her entire life? Did she hope I might die and escape the cruelty, the stares, the laughter, the pointing? I can’t imagine. She had pushed the grief from the two lost babies deep within. When she was alone with her thoughts, when she kneeled beside her bed to pray every night, what did she pray for?

 

I walk on the beaches in Santa Barbara almost every day, watching the tides come in and go out, changing the landscape from one day to the next. Some days the beach is thick with sand stretching from the shoreline to the cliffs. Others the sand is washed away, exposing barnacle-encrusted rocks, sea anemones and an occasional starfish. My Australian shepherd frolics in the waves and plays with the other dogs on the beach. And I think, How is the self built? Like the changing beachscape, we are shaped and formed by forces outside of us. Surely the self is altered by experiences, by perceptions created out of circumstance. What happens to the self if face and body are transfigured by happenstance? If that self is in early formation, a young child of five, the self may be more radically affected. After the accident, my identity evolved into that of a scarred child, a child whose face repulsed people. It wasn’t long before I knew that I was someone to be avoided, that my face was a frightening visage, even for adults. And while I knew my family knew and loved me, I also was certain no one else could possibly see and appreciate the self I was within.

(Part Four)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Three

This is Part three from Face, A Memoir, which I am serializing in posts on my blog. Here are Parts One and Two. The memoir is about my struggle to come to terms with a childhood trauma that haunted me well into middle life. It has taken me many years to write this, and I am revising it as I post pieces of it online. I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

 

Part Three

July 6, 1961 - Surgeon’s notes: Patient—a five-year-old girl—presented in the emergency room on June 17 with severe lacerations and subdermal abrasions on the left side of the face and upper chest. Primary concern was stanching blood loss and saving the left eye. Emergency closure of facial wound required pulling together tissue from both sides of the cheek. Pressure bandages applied. Loss of upper left eyelid and portion of lower left lid required fashioning of tarsorrhaphy to protect the eye.

I wake and I can’t see. My face itches. My ears itch. I am desperate to scratch my ears. I can’t move my arms! Why can’t I move my arms?

My mom’s voice comes to me. Soothingly, I hear her say: “It’s okay, Marcia. It’s for your own good.”

 

Every day for five weeks she came to the hospital and sat by my bedside, waiting for me to wake, enduring my fearful tears when I did, watching the nurses give me shots and adjust my bandages, listening to my screams when the doctors changed the dressings. Did she retreat? Crawl into a cavernous place of grief – perhaps denial – to deal with the shock, the pain?

Mrs. Medema and several neighborhood girls took turns babysitting the other kids while she was at the hospital. At the end of the day, she’d go home to her three other children. I know friends and family members helped out. But what was it like for her to watch me cry, seeing me bloodied and bandaged, knowing I was terrified, knowing I suffered, knowing there was nothing she could do but try to soothe me? Then going home to three young children who also needed her attention. She was overwhelmed, emotionally and physically. And still she came and sat. Sat with her knitting, absently crossing needle over needle, moving the yarn from left to right, right to left. I see her deft hands, her pointer fingers crisscrossing each other with each stitch, her mouth a set line, her brow furrowed. The ball of yarn unfurling.

Over time, she shut down. Sat and patted my hand as they pulled stitches from my face, or placed another needle into my arm, or held me down for another change of dressings. Emotionally, she left. Pushed her feelings to a deep place so she could manage daily life. How could she not? But it didn’t start with me.

His name was Patrick, Ricky for short, their second-born. Cherie was two and Ricky eight months when my parents were invited to go away with another couple for a weekend of sailing. Their friends Barb and Harvey Nedeau offered to take care of the kids. When they dropped them off, my mom was fretting. She wanted Barb to make sure Cherie had her blankie at night, that Ricky got his bottle at five and again just before bed.

Barb reassured her.

That night, Barb set up a vaporizer near Ricky’s crib so he could breathe easier. Sometime in the middle of the night, he pulled the cord and the vaporizer over into the bed, scalding his body with boiling water. The Nedeaus raced Ricky to the hospital. My parents rushed home. Ricky died two days later.

 A year and a half later, my mom was expecting. It was winter and the streets were icy. My grandmother was driving with my mom and Cherie, heading downtown to shop. As she negotiated the slippery streets, my grandma noticed a large spider above her head on the visor. As she watched, it dropped down near her face. She swatted at it, and as she did the wheel turned to the right and the car left the road. As Cherie bounced in the back seat, the car ran up the guy wire of a telephone pole and overturned. Mom was thrown out of the car. Cherie and my grandma were unhurt, but Mom suffered skull fractures and ended up in the hospital for several weeks. The baby, Robert, was born several months later, but died within hours. Mom knew she would lose him, because she hemorrhaged through the rest of the pregnancy.

The boys are buried together in the Muskegon Catholic Cemetery.

 

Before I was released from the hospital on July 23, my mom and dad gathered Cherie and Chuck in the living room.

“Marcia is coming home this afternoon, and she looks different than she did,” my mom explained. “You shouldn’t be afraid when you see her. She’s still your sister. She’s still the same Marcia.”

But I wasn’t.

(Part Four)

Memoir: Not just a 'recital of events'

Tomorrow my second packet of writing and book annotations is due to my graduate school professor. Yikes! Earlier this week I was feeling energized and confident I could get another 10 pages written (for a total of 20 due). Today, I am struggling to piece together what seems a jumbled mass of images, memories, snippets of dialogue and characters.

I am writing about a childhood trauma – a car accident that nearly killed me when I was 5 – and trying to link it to decisions I made as an adult that turned out to be not so great. But going back to that time has proved difficult, if not painful. Trying to mine those memories for insights that will connect with others is the challenge. How did my experience affect my family? How I related to others? What others expected of me? How to weave all those pieces together?

In The Situation and the Story, the Art of Personal Essay, Vivian Gornick writes: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

So, then, what have I come to say? I thought I knew, but every time I try to grasp it and write it down, it wisps away like a dandelion seed carried on the wind. It feels as if it’s there, under a sheet of thin ice, just out of reach. So, here I sit today, writing scenes, preparing dialogue, opening my veins. But I can’t seem to bring it forth.

Gornick, again: “The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom – or rather the movement toward it – that counts.”

Aha! The “movement toward it.” That opens up the possibility, the potential, of connection. What did enduring 17 surgeries from ages 5 to 19 have to do with who I became? How has my adult insight at middle-age changed my understanding of those experiences, and how can I write that so that others can relate to it?

“…(M)emoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription,” Gornick says. “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Trust in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”

Now, I’m moving toward it.

What is your experience in writing memoir? How did you approach it so that it did not become, as Gornick says, simply “a recital of actual events”?