I often find myself speaking to/for those who I feel have been silenced: my child-self (I feel children are often silenced), persons with disabilities…Many people have been historically silenced, some more than others, but I write about what I know, so the silenced communities I chose to write about are those I’m a member of. I feel everyone should have a voice. I think as a female writer I’m sensitive to what this means. I’m constantly reflecting on the pain of others around me.
Cabbage Patch Baby
Everything changed for my family the day of my baby sister Courtney’s two-week check-up.
I had noticed my dad on the phone. I was playing with my Barbies in the living room. My little sisters Lindsay and Ashley were sitting next to me, shifting their Barbie’s long slender legs back and forth over the stiff surface of the tightly woven blue carpet, like puppeteers. We were hosting a fashion show, one of our favorite pastimes. We stripped our Barbies naked every few minutes then re-dressed them in high-waisted jeans and scorts, their long shiny hair in side ponytails. I was waiting for our mom to return with our baby sister, who looked like one of my Cabbage Patch Dolls, with her dimples, chubby cheeks, and knobby knees—I loved helping my mother by changing Courtney’s diaper, holding her when she cried, or feeding her a bottle.
I could see my dad in the adjacent kitchen through the open space above the rustic wooden bar, which had visible grains that curved out across its shiny surface. The air was sweet with the sickeningly rich scent of boiling hot dogs, as dinner was approaching, and that’s what we ate most of the time. The phone hung on the kitchen wall. It was the plastic kind with the long curly cord that dangles like a limp pig’s tail. His voice was deep, an abrupt “Hello-p,” his usual greeting then he quieted and he turned away. I felt something in the air. This was the first time I had ever seen my dad demonstrate secretive behavior—his words were always loaded with meaning because he spoke in fragment sentences, like many people in our family did. But his actions and responses were always predictable, prescriptive: his favorite phrase was “Don’t ever let me catch you doing X.” Lindsay and Ashley didn’t notice anything strange. They continued playing.
He hung up the phone. I was staring but he didn’t notice. He leaned over the sink and threw up.
“What’s wrong?” I approached him.
“Nothing. I’m just sick,” he said. I hadn’t noticed any signs that he was sick prior to the call. “You girls get your stuff together. You’re going down to your grandmother’s.”
I must have pressed my dad because he eventually told me Courtney “stopped breathing on the doctor’s table” but he wouldn’t tell me anything else and I didn’t understand. I was the oldest girl in my family, so he repeated that I should help my sisters get their “stuff” together because he needed my help. I didn’t know what “stuff” meant so I placed some Barbies inside a bag. I tried not to cry because Lindsay, two years younger than me always based her reactions on mine.
When my dad dropped my brother, Ricky, Lindsay, Ashley, and me off at our grandmother’s, her expression was uneasy. I wondered if she’d thrown up too, or was about to. I knew my dad had thrown up because he was upset, not sick—the explanation he would stick to into my adulthood.
My dad and grandmother exchanged a couple of whispers. My grandmother’s house, which was only one house down from ours, smelled of freshly vacuumed carpeting, and berry-scented Glade PlugIns. The aroma of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, which she often made for us when we visited for a sleepover, was conspicuously absent.
After my dad left, we settled down in the living room, and Ricky turned on Ren and Stimpy, or some other like cartoon on Nickelodeon, which was usually a treat because we didn’t have cable at home. But this visit didn’t feel like our usual sleepovers. Nobody was talking.
At some point my grandmother, who had a loud, high-pitched voice that made her sound like she was yelling, returned from the kitchen, sat down in her recliner then jolted back up. I wasn’t sure if I had been aware that babies could stop breathing prior to that day, and I wondered if my grandmother hadn’t realized this was a possibility either. I didn’t ask her because I’d been taught not to ask adults too many questions. “Do you kids want some popcorn?” she said, stuttering, which made me even more frightened.
Ricky and Ashley said yes. Lindsay and I were quiet. I could feel Lindsay’s nervous energy radiating towards me, like tiny waves of electricity, her wide blue eyes fixed on me. Lindsay and I had always been close—in our room our mattresses were pressed against one another because she “couldn’t sleep” without resting her leg over my body.
Grammy half-smiled. She said something like, “Good. I need something to keep my mind occupied.”
I could smell the sweet buttery scent and hear the pop-pop-pop on the stovetop—my grandmother was an old-fashioned farm-born girl, so she prided herself on the quality of her food, and only used Jiffy Pop, which she considered leagues above bagged popcorn. A singed, bitter odor filled the room.
She came in moments later and began profusely apologizing for burning the popcorn—I didn’t know if she felt guilty that we now had to endure the odor until it dissipated, or if she was upset that she couldn’t meet our needs because she had said it had been her last bag. She looked like she might cry and it made me feel sick again.
She said she only had bagged popcorn left. She said she kept it in the cupboard for “emergencies.” I wondered if she meant the popcorn was for an emergency like the one we were in now, or whether it was a lack of Jiffy Pop that qualified as an emergency.
I told her it was okay then she exhaled deeply and left the room.
As the room re-filled with the rich artificial aroma of microwaved popcorn, I climbed halfway up the stairs, which you could watch the T.V. from because they were open style, not separated from the living room by a wall. I lay down. I dug my fingertips into the long, rough, thick fibers of the pea-green shag rug that stretched from the stairs, into the living room, and into my grandmother’s adjacent bedroom, which made me feel grounded. They were long enough to get lost in. The light above the stairs was off so no one could see me cry from my perch, or if they did, they didn’t say anything.
When my grandmother returned with a bowl of popcorn, Ashley dug her hand into the bowl, like a bear in a beehive, then licked it clean afterwards, while Ricky, Lindsay, and I ate only a few pieces. I wasn’t hungry. I only pretended to eat for the sake of my grandmother, who appeared to be comforted somehow by feeding us.
After the windows, which lined either side of the room, had darkened, I realized that I hadn’t packed any clothing for my sisters and I if we had to sleepover. I felt like a failure. We hadn’t even played with our Barbies.
When my parents returned, I was relieved. But they didn’t have Courtney, who had to stay overnight at the hospital for observation because she’d stopped breathing several times.
When Courtney did eventually return home, she came attached to an apnea monitor, a square machine that beeped like an alarm clock when she stopped breathing. A patch adhered to her chest was connected to a cord that snaked down into the machine. She still looked the same as she had the day before but now she had Apnea, Epilepsy, Blindness, Dandy Walker Syndrome, and Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, which my mom explained meant that part of Courtney’s brain was missing.
off the margins contributors are asked to respond to three questions that will be asked of all featured writers to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?
In what way(s) do you identify yourself as a woman writer?
In my work, I often explore my role as the oldest female child in a somewhat ‘old-fashioned’ family of New England farmers: with the exception of one of my grandmothers, who was from New York City (the daughter of an immigrant father from Lithuania), both of my parents, their parents, their grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., were famers, who eked out a living through toiling in the tough, beautiful rolling landscape of N.H. I explore my role as a daughter, a granddaughter, and a female with four younger sisters.
I often find myself speaking to/for those who I feel have been silenced: my child-self (I feel children are often silenced), persons with disabilities (I have a sister who’s disabled), people who suffer from mental illness (mental illness runs in my family), and the farming community in N.H. (many farmers in N.H., like my family, lost their farms in the early 90’s due to dropping milk prices). Many people have been historically silenced, some more than others, but I write about what I know, so the silenced communities I chose to write about are those I’m a member of. I feel everyone should have a voice. I think as a female writer I’m sensitive to what this means. I’m constantly reflecting on the pain of others around me.
Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
Much of my creative strength comes from my grandmother, Marilyn, who was from New York City. She taught me to write poetry at the age of ten. She taught me to appreciate the small things in life: a blooming flower, a four-leaf clover, a blue sky: Once, after she’d already begun to exhibit signs of dementia, she showed me a drawing she’d recently made of a plant that had grown around one of the fence posts behind her home, an ivy, which she’d drawn as if it were a being with a face and body, a green creature peeking up from the earth that only she could see. She’d known it was just a plant, which had been shaped in a certain way and caught in a particular light that made it appear to be a being, but she desired to share the moment with others, so she preserved it. She was sensitive to her environment, the world around her, and to others. She appreciated me and made me feel special. By teaching me to write poetry at such a young age, she laid the building blocks for what would later become much more than a hobby, or a way to express my emotions. Now that she’s passed on, I carry her with me in everything I do.
What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?
I’ve discovered that we need to write about what we feel most strongly about. If it doesn’t break our own heart, or make our heart soar, it won’t burrow its way into our readers’ hearts. I had a break-through in my writing after I’d earned my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing, and was halfway through my graduate degree after I read a book that recommended I write what I was most afraid to write. This was daunting because I lost a sister to suicide when I was twenty-three and I carried/carry a lot of guilt. I could think of a million reasons why her death was my fault. Simultaneously, I felt a need to protect my sister, even though she was dead, from a society that still overwhelmingly views mental illness as a weakness, and suicide as selfish, or an easy way out of a problem that’s “just in your head,” a problem which you will recover from in time if you work hard enough and maintain enough positivity (something that’s almost impossible for those who are chronically mentally ill, particularly when the mental illness runs in the family, which is the case with mine). I felt like I might lose my mind while I wrote about my relationship with my sister and my loss. I felt sick to my stomach. Even though it’s been ten years, I’m not really ready to elaborate on my story in prose yet. When I do write a book about my sister, I want to be fair to her, to myself, and all of those who’ve been impacted by suicide, in general. I didn’t finish what I had begun, as far as editing goes, but I got down all of the scenes from the past that plagued me, and the activity seemed to serve its purpose. I began to write from deep and dark places, with an honesty and vulnerability that hadn’t been present in much of my earlier work. I would recommend this exercise to anyone—but if your story is too painful, like mine, cut yourself a break, and don’t force yourself to edit it into a complete picture if you’re not ready. It’s the activity that will impact your work, not the final product.
As an artist, I feel like it’s important to be true to myself. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Dickinson is one of my favorite writers: her poetry is deep and insightful and allows readers to fill in the spaces. In my work, I strive to respect the reader and allow them to engage with my world, as they would any experience in life. I seek to speak with my readers, not at them.
At the conclusion of Dickinson’s poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” she writes: “As Lightning to the children eased / With explanation kind / The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—.” This is something I believe most intensely. I’m a gentle person and this is (for the most part) reflected in my work. I think some writers who are more direct produce beautiful and impactful work, but I’m the type of writer that speaks softly and waits, something I think also has great value in the world.
Rebecca Curtis has published work in The New Englander, The Henniker Review, and Environmental Forensics, and has work forthcoming in Post Road. She has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from New England College.