I want to share my experiences honestly so other women won’t feel so alone when faced with circumstances that require them to be unselfishly supportive to others while they struggle to stay true to themselves and have a life of their own choosing. It feels like a never-ending story for women, and I want to keep telling it.
This piece links five generations of women in my family, and possibly more to come.
My mother saved a filbert nut for me to carry into the 21st century. There were no diamond rings or fur coats to pass down. No 18-karat gold watches or crystal wine glasses.
“It’s a triple,” my mother said the day she presented it to me, turning it back and forth in the filtered light of her bedroom window, exposing its three plump pockets as if she were a fine jeweler examining a precious stone.
“Do you want it?”
I hesitated, knowing its value. Ever since I could remember, that nut had rested inside an antique porcelain dish on top of my mother’s nightstand. I found my fingers traveling straight to its side, stretching slowly to touch its smooth hazelnut shell, its bumpy beige cap. But I withdrew my hand quickly, insisting that the filbert go to my older sister, its rightful heir. My mother replied so firmly and decisively that no argument would sway her.
“I want you to have it. You are the one who needs it most.”
So on that day, on a date I do not remember, I stood on the red carpet of my parent’s bedroom and silently agreed to carry the filbert nut forward with me.
“You know the story, don’t you?” The tone of my mother’s voice suggested an immediate retelling.
I listened to the familiar tale of a small package that had arrived from Sicily in 1925. A postman in uniform left it at the doorstep of my grandparent’s house on the north side of Syracuse, where my 32-year-old grandmother had just given birth to her third child and only daughter. The filbert was nestled inside a plain package with other assorted baby gifts—an embroidered bonnet, a needlepoint table piece.
“A triple filbert from our backyard for you, cara mia,” the note might have read if my great-grandmother could write. But I suspect that no words were needed to accompany the raw gift, which my grandmother dubbed the “pope’s cap” because of its triple-pointed form and inherent good luck. My grandmother did not need a description to explain the exact spot in the small backyard where it had fallen. She probably could close her eyes and see the tree branches stretched against Mt. Etna in the distance, and almost smell the cold lava rock in the warm Mediterranean breeze.
The filbert stayed close to my grandmother for nearly 40 years, nestled inside a small dish on top of her bedroom dresser, moving only twice. In 1928, in the glory days—even for an immigrant baker’s family—the filbert moved to East Brighton Street where the brand new house on the edge of town was filled with handmade ceramic tiles and hardwood floors finished by my grandfather’s hands. By 1935, the foreclosure moved all of their belongings two long blocks to Thurber Street where the sturdy house had stucco walls, their final destination.
Still my grandmother knew the luck of the filbert. By 1945 her two Navy-uniformed sons had returned from World War II, uninjured and smiling. She saw six grandchildren born in the Baby Boom years and watched them grow into healthy teachers, musicians, and hippies. Into her 70s, she was a master gardener who adorned her half-acre yard with an abundance of roses and lilies, oversized tomatoes, and impossible fruit trees—plums, peaches, apples, pears, and even a fig tree that bore fruit in spite of the inhospitable central New York winters. There was never any talk of planting a filbert tree to remind her of the home she would not see again.
“If I don’t go back, they are all still there,” she’d say with a wistful shrug and a half smile.
My grandmother gave the filbert nut to my mother for good luck in the early 1960s when my parents moved away to raise a young family of their own. My mother kept it hidden, but close, inside a covered, heart-shaped dish with painted roses. I saw her rub it once, like a rabbit’s foot, after her first cancer surgery. I don’t know what my mother imagined in her mind’s eye when she touched it that day, maybe just my grandmother’s face, maybe the lilt of Italian in the air, maybe the smell of eggplant and braciole on familiar Sundays past. Maybe she just felt its rippling surface and wondered what it held inside, knowing she would never look. That was 1974. She lived another 40 years.
I have held the filbert nut many times over the decades that it has been in my possession, fingering the three rounded compartments that house the precious nut meats. Shaking it, hearing it rattle, believing that its contents are still intact. Wondering if inside there were three, separate, fully formed pieces as the shell suggests, or if one had shriveled up and died or another had never materialized at all. Or if maybe, underneath, they were all joined together. I refuse to go on the Internet and learn more about it.
It is enough to carry the filbert nut into this new millennium, whole. I plan to keep it for a while. When I do pass it down to my daughter I will tell her, again, of how her great-great-grandmother saw a triple filbert nut in her own backyard and took the time to notice it, to pick it up, to share its unusual beauty. I will assure my only child that yes, when she has a family of her own, she can have the triple filbert that sits inside a heart-shaped, cut-glass container on top of my bedroom dresser. All she needs to promise is never to crack it open and to remember where it came from.
(Originally published in Monadnock Ledger magazine)
I originally wrote this piece in 2006 as a response to the George W. Bush administration though it still feels relevant today.
What If the World Saw Iva?
What if America was symbolized to the world by a 74-year-old African-American grandmother from Vance County, North Carolina named Iva? For a moment, try to blot out those persistent images of starched white males with carefully chosen ties — sky blue for serenity, blood red for power, banana yellow for stature — and replace them with images of soft, sturdy Iva. Picture her loose gray chignon and slightly curved back compressed inside a plain cloth coat, which was once a crisp navy blue.
Imagine if Iva represented us at Buckingham Palace, shuffling along the royal hallways, hooking her bad hip up a notch on each step, smiling through a wince. What if she wore a plain black peasant blouse from K-mart to address the United Nations? What if she walked through the streets of Somalia, unwilling to stop until the last bone-skinny hand that was offered her was touched? Iva would ignore the corns chafing her worn leather flats. She would ignore the sweaty stench of her own exertion. She would ignore everything but the eyes that met hers.
What might happen if we put Iva’s face on the ten-dollar bill? Would the economy pick up? Would we exchange more smiles with our currency? Would we buy more whole grain bread?
What if Iva’s face were on a Forever Stamp? Would we write more letters? Would we spend more time on our penmanship, perfecting our capital “Ds” whenever we wrote “Dear” in a salutation? I wonder if Iva could bring back “Dear.” I bet she could.
Picture Iva with her round, unapologetic middle and a moon face that is never tense, never painted with eyeliner. Her eyes as piercing and undiluted as when she learned to read, learned to do unto others, learned the ten commandments, learned so well that she never unlearned, never stopped believing in “the right thing to do,” or in God. Oh yes, Iva believes in God. But she believes in your God too and my God and everyone’s God (or a person’s right to believe in no God at all). Better yet, she knows how to make you believe in yourself, because she believes in herself, without a 401k, or a brand new Ford truck, or any piece of clothing from Garnet Hill.
If Iva were our symbol to the world, I wonder if extremist Muslims would hate us so. I wonder if the Russians would continue to scheme against us. I wonder if China would be so protectionist.
Don’t get me wrong, Iva would be no dummy. She would favor a powerful military and a tenacious CIA. They would just be stealthy, stronger forces. Iva would not beat her chest and repeat words like “evil doer.” Instead, she would smile and nod occasionally, and—when truly warranted—she would hug.
Because Iva is the best of us and the rest of us, she would make time for her new grandbabies, Ava and Jonathan. She would refuel her spirit watching them breastfeed. She would know each night at 10:00 to put her slippers by the nightstand and climb into sheets dried in the wind, knowing that tomorrow she could conquer more problems, think of better solutions, hold more hands, laugh louder, smile wider, and still walk on her own sore feet. She would never stop believing that fear has no place in her home or anyone else’s, that need exceeds want, and that she could start a ripple that was felt throughout a dive-bombing world.
The best part is that Iva would have no PR handlers, for Iva has no spin. She would always be plain old Iva with the common sense to think clearly, the common courtesy to speak politely, and the uncommon ability to speak her mind at all times.
Think of the healing power of Iva’s doughy face beamed over satellite on the BBC and Al Jazeera and CNN. Why not put Iva’s face on cereal boxes, on NFL advertisements, on billboards for the latest Star Wars movie? Let Iva represent us to the world as most of us really are—tired and honest and hard-working and free. Why not put Iva’s face forward and see what happens?
I’m currently working on a collection of poems on the theme of brain injury and suicide and their impact on survivors. Here are some excerpts.
Replacing the Broken Bed After the Divorce
The Adirondack-style bed is cracked,
held with wire on my side.
I carried it here, to the new place, trying
to clear the old queen-size dreams.
Too sad-eyed, ransacked to replace it.
Being frugal. The first matched
bed and nightstand we owned.
Did we buy it before or after
the accident? I can’t remember.
It broke years later.
Our exuberant 10-year-old, jumping
up and down like a bottled rocket.
Scared she’d broken our marriage
bed, not knowing
she’d kept it together.
We wrapped the supporting
beam with circles of wire.
Jagged cracks forming a faultline.
Compromised soft wood groaning
under our sullen weight
each morning as we lifted
bodies from its broken frame.
The bed squeaked its song
cycle of dissonance:
Schubert meets Picasso.
Despite the creaks, we lay
night after night, expecting
different outcomes, listening
to our demise. Until we stopped
hearing even the longing
of songs in F minor.
(Originally published in Willow Review)
What’s Left in Jacksonville
Hurricane Matthew eroded the beach where it happened. There’s no way
to find where you parked the lawn chair, gazed at the Atlantic. No speckle of sand, no
reedy grass that was there when you were, on that spot. Any final traces of you rubbed out,
if I’d wanted to look, which I don’t, at where the middle-aged man found you
while walking his dog.
If only you’d had friends in Jacksonville to talk to, like I do, now. The patient pro
bono attorney who listened without judgment every time I asked the same dazed questions:
How do I protect my daughter from bankruptcy? From family cruelty?
Or the woman who packed and shipped your belongings, who understood why
I couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t travel to Florida to enter your new house, the one
that looked like the passive solar we once shared. Big; four bedrooms you never
needed. But it did sell quickly, in case that was what you were thinking.
What were you thinking?
Matthew delivered its considerable threat, even when it avoided landfall. The biggest menace
to the Florida coast in a decade. Flash flood warnings remained in effect for days. Or was it
years, like when I burst into tears at the sight of a cider press in the driveway of a young couple
in my neighborhood. I saw our apple orchard, the life we sculpted together on the crooked
hillside of Mountain Road.
What was it that you needed?
After the initial storm passed, devastating effects still followed. Punishing rains, sea surges, wind
gusts. Although the track moved offshore, more churn was expected. Even when a permanent
pivot eventually moved it far from the coast, Florida’s governor warned, “This is not over.”
Lights On for One
What color to stain the shingles? Is it OK to cut a hole in the outside wall to run electricity
to the ceiling lights? Do I need new ceiling lights? It’s the decision making that leaves me
We didn’t ever really fight about such things. Remarkably in sync as we restored our 1830s
cape. Expanded the outer shed to living space with a cubbied mudroom. Insulated the roof
above the rafters to keep the rugged beams exposed throughout the second floor. Kept the old
kitchen woodstove in the middle of the room where we found it, despite its awkward footprint.
We did fight about the tractor. The first five thousand dollars we spent on the smallest Ford
tractor you could buy, with attachments for the brush hog and the plow. What we really needed
were new sills, I thought.
But you were like a 10-year-old boy puttering on that tractor. Blissful. I made you buy
the safety bar sometime later to protect you from our uneven, rolling terrain. To guard against
your fearlessness, which I’d loved, before it turned to recklessness.
I plowed the snow myself sometimes. Especially that first winter after the accident.
Learned how to turn against my better instincts: left, then right to push the snow
in opposite directions. We sold the tractor with the second house just after the divorce.
It was a steal.
Today, I love a shingled cottage like I once loved you. It is my relationship. I know its
angles, its creaks, its stalwart comforts. I make the decisions alone and hire a general
contractor to execute them.
One Friday I left early, leaving my contractor to his duties, asking him to lock up. When I
arrived home after dark, the outdoor light by the main door was shining. My house almost
welcoming me. I never use that light. My contractor probably didn’t imagine it as more
than a thoughtful gesture.
It shouldn’t have made me stop the car as I drove in, stare in disbelief
in the punctuated darkness, and cry.
To the Man at Harlows Pub on Monday Night
Come to me. No. I mean it. Come.
Understand that there are things I should tell you.
That I am damaged goods in the best way.
Like a cantaloupe, bumpy and yellow.
I am that 50-something woman with silver-streaked
hair and a waist that once was pinched.
I have a story to tell still, to you.
You eat alone, gobbling a bowl of chili
with melted cheese that sticks to your lips.
Your shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair,
your white worker’s hands waiting to talk
politics and art and business.
You sit coiled, like a spring latch, really. Ready.
Who are you? Where are you from?
Did you like the Celtic music on Tuesday night?
What did you think of Nan Goldin’s photos?
I’ve forgotten how to introduce myself.
I have no fine red dress to wear.
Nothing to make you see me.
Can’t tell if you are really trying to catch my eye
or you want to ensnare the one with lean, curvy calves.
You are too ruggedly handsome for me, I think.
I see the beautiful blonde with the short skirt and décolletage.
She walks past me in your direction, smiling
I don’t bother to look back.
I can hear her laugh. I can imagine your grin.
I look at my check. The bill seems too high.
I pay it anyway.
(Originally published in Adanna Literary Journal)
As the Fog Begins to Lift at Peaks Island
Rock clusters reveal themselves in ragged shorelines,
littered with blanched, heart-shaped stones worn
and partly cleaved from years of nor’easters
landing outside the cottage where I happen to rest.
On a morning after
a ripe September Saturday like the one
I was married.
Here, beadboard walls speak the easy language
of ivory wedding cakes.
Hardwood floors tender their support in variations
of mahogany, ginger, cinnamon, and dust.
I stare at the hollow framework
where the central hearth once was.
Look straight at that vacant space
for minutes at a time, without flinching.
I have no way to fend off the cold
in the unheated cottage, days from October.
Layered wool blankets cover only part
of the Maine chill.
Summer has moved on.
Like the tide that began its vanishing sweep
this morning, leaving me to stare at the damp,
I scour nature’s unanchored collage for a sign
—not yet believing—that broken shells
and driftwood can shake, lift, and dance
in the return of a buoyant sea.
(Originally published in The Mud Chronicles)
off the margins contributors are asked to respond to questions 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?
I came of age in an era of booming feminism. My oh-so-American expectations were set early on to “have it all” with a successful career and a rewarding family life. These expectations were lofty, aspirational, and largely unrealistic. Like so many women I tried to keep it all afloat, only to discover there are chapters in one’s life. Sure, you can have it all, but you may not be able to have it all at the same time. And you cannot always dodge the long-established roles that women have held for ages. While I’ve been lucky to have a decades-long career that women in my mother’s generation could only dream of, I was also thrust deeply into the traditional female role of caregiver when I became a critical support person for my brain-injured husband while also raising a daughter. I want to share my experiences honestly so other women won’t feel so alone when faced with circumstances that require them to be unselfishly supportive to others while they struggle to stay true to themselves and have a life of their own choosing. It feels like a never-ending story for women, and I want to keep telling it.
Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
My parents lived a creative life. They intentionally chose unusual paths and bucked societal norms of their day. They moved from a city to a remote and beautiful harbor town on Lake Ontario when I was a baby. My father made his living as a carpenter. A WWII army veteran, he soothed his soul through fishing, hunting, and taking care of our land. My mother sold real estate part time while she pursued her passions of needlepoint, painting, sewing, and virtually any other creative pursuit she set her mind to. They lived a life of their choosing, surviving everything from periods of unemployment to multiple bouts with cancer. Their dogged determination continues to be the model for my creative strength.
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 had urges to write when I was young, but didn’t study English, literature, or creative writing. Still I found a way to write because it was an interest that would not be quiet. While working full time, I attended workshops and seminars and was an active member of a women’s writing group for about 15 years. To this day, many of my closest friends are writers. It’s helpful to have the support of others who know the challenges of honoring the writing life. In the end, you just have to make time for the work and do it.
I’m an essayist, poet, and fiction writer who writes frequently about culture, politics, and family matters. My themes often include the dichotomies of our times: rich and poor; environmentalists and capitalists; progressives and the conservative right. My writing is strongly influenced by the remote and beautiful landscape of my youth, where I grew up on Lake Ontario near the Canadian border. My work is marked by plain-style language, a strong sense of place, and a deep empathy for those who struggle in the face of adversity.
My work has appeared in such venues as The Wall Street Journal, New Hampshire Public Radio, Yankee Magazine books, Concrete Wolf, Post Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, The Mud Chronicles, and Willow Review for which I received the Willow Review Award for poetry for 2015.
I served as managing editor and poetry editor of Shadow and Light – A Literary Anthology on Memory. I also served as an editor of Smoky Quartz, an online literary journal.
I completed a one-month writing residency in 2015 at the Santa Fe Art Institute, where I worked on my first novel. I’m currently working on a poetry chapbook focused on the theme of brain injury and suicide.
My commercial work includes writing for major brands, often with a strong focus on technology. These include Meta (Facebook), IBM, Kronos, Avid Technology, Sophos Software, Leopard (a division of Ogilvy), Garnet Hill, and Kennedy Information, among others. My business writing has been favorably reviewed in The New York Times and InfoWorld. I also received three national awards for newsletter writing and editing from the Society for Technical Communication.
Link to website