Nonfiction by Tess Hogan
I wave my right hand in defeat, wincing at the sparks of pain shooting down my legs. We veer off the road onto the grass of someone’s lawn. The weeds are so high they brush my knees. My mom is laughing as I stretch down to my toes, trying to ease the cramps inhabiting my calves.
I am so out of shape, I think as I exhale and descend.
I’m back home for the last weekend of summer, and we’re going on a run together. Theoretically, the almost-twenty-year-old daughter should be a better runner than her sixty-year-old mother, but my mother and I disprove that theory. She does at least four miles every day. At this point in my life, I’m more of a twice-a-week-if-that runner. I’ve grown used to the paved sidewalks of Boston, nothing like the grassy hills of my hometown. We had just crested mile three when my un-stretched muscles started to twang.
“Straighten your posture and step from heel-to-toe,” she says, still smiling. “See if that feels any better.”
It does. We cross the street and duck into a side road, passing the house of one of my friends from elementary school.
“There’s Cailin’s house!” She smiles and waves, although no one seems to be home.
I chew my lip. “Katie, Mom.”
She shrugs up at me as if to say oops. The unease that had filled my gut quickly recedes. Why should she remember the name of a random childhood friend? I haven’t spoken to Katie in years, not since I transferred schools. Besides, Cailin and Katie are basically the same name anyway.
We continue our jog past the one-story houses and sprawling fields. The weeds whip against my ankles.
“I’m going to start charging you for headspace. 99 cents per memory. I refuse to do this memory bank shit for free. I don’t have enough room!”
I put down the lavender boom box I had been ogling solely for its pastel attractiveness and turn towards my best friend, who’s smiling at me. I can’t argue that one of my memories is worth a shitty song on iTunes. I tell her this, and she laughs. We’re loitering in a trendy chain store on a Sunday morning with nothing else to do. She’s already walking away, browsing the overpriced wares with my boyfriend. They pore over coffee table books offering riveting takes on astrology and avocados, the twin pillars of modern-day society.
Bad memory isn’t quite right. I rarely forget names. I do well on multiple-choice tests. I’m great at finding lost things. Back when I was still acting, I’d memorize scripts in a handful of days. What I don’t have room in my head for is personal memories—as in, the sentimental scenes from one’s past, or even just the mundane. Not only do I not remember what I had for dinner two nights ago, I can’t remember what the stage at my high school graduation looked like, whose hands I shook and why. When I was nine years old, I had a seizure and stopped breathing. Today, if someone asked me if I’d ever had a near-death experience, I’d have to think hard on it. Never once have I been able to hold a grudge. If you ask me, “Do you remember when…” the answer is almost always no. The past has fuzzy edges and a translucent gut. Everything is slippery. Haniyyah steps in as my personal historian.
When we’re talking in a group of friends and someone brings up an episode from high school life or an awry frat party, I stage whisper, “Was I there?”
And she replies, “Yes, crazy.”
We’re running along the main road now, at the bottom of a big hill. Whenever a car materializes at the top of it, my mom slides behind me.
“You’re faster, so take the front,” she says, panting.
I might be faster than my mom, but her endurance outranks mine. We pull into the church parking lot on our street, and she leaves me behind to do a quick half-mile loop past Poesten Kill creek. I heave myself onto the grass and do stretches to the sound of pickup trucks hurtling by. An older Lou Reed monotones in my ear. Glancing towards the main road, I see that my mom’s coming up a real killer of a hill. Her pace is steady, her eyes clear and determined.
A woman in her thirties jogging in the opposite direction calls out, “Good for you, I could never do that!”
My mom laughs and waves her off, says something self-deprecating. Her cheeks are glowy-pink with pride.
I get up, my shoes slapping the pavement as I make my way towards her. In between us and home lies a curving hill, a cornfield, and probably some wild turkeys. We begin.
Born to Jean Connors and Richard Fox, my mom idolized her dad. He chose her name: Eileen. They saw eye to eye in a way she and her mother did not. He worked as a phone salesman. He was very handsome with a deep, deep voice―on weekends, he sang baritone in a barbershop quartet. Every evening, no matter the evening, he and his wife would smoke a cigarette before dinner. My mom and her sisters would sit impatiently in the living room, tapping their shoes as Richard Fox pressed the stub of his cigarette into the ashtray. One afternoon, while skiing with my mom’s youngest sister, he crashed into a tree and went into cardiac arrest. He left behind three daughters and a wife. My mom was 17.
Of their three daughters, my mom was the only one to stay close to home. Her older and younger sisters moved further south for work and warmth. Gram, her mother and my grandmother, came over every Tuesday to see my sister and me off the school bus. We didn’t really see eye to eye. I was cursed with precociousness and a smart mouth. And, despite my mother’s strict Catholic upbringing, the Hogans didn’t go to church. True to her Birkenstocks, my mom doesn’t really believe in organized religion built on misogyny. I think I was in middle school when Gram forgot to come over one Tuesday. My parents arrived home to find my sister and me watching TV by ourselves. Worried, they called her.
She picked up almost immediately.
“What? It’s Tuesday?”
Later, my parents would refer to this moment as the beginning of the end.
The sun presses down on us as we make our way up the winding hill that is Garfield road. Our street is named after the former president, but it still evokes in me thoughts of the chubby, sarcastic, Monday-hating cat. I’m panting shamelessly at this point, sweating bullets in the suffocating August heat as we reach the peak of the hill and the ground flattens out beneath us. The cornfield that sprawls over the main stretch of our road hadn’t been active in years, but this summer the stalks are taller than me. They shift eerily as we jog past them.
“Kind of creepy,” I say.
My mom pulls out one of her earbuds. “Huh?”
“Kind of creepy,” I repeat.
She nods. “I always feel like something’s gonna come out and grab me. You want me to run on that side? I’ve lived a long life. It should take me first.”
I swat her arm. “No way! I’m scrappier. I can take ’em.”
She laughs and waves to one of our neighbors. I wave too, though I can’t remember her name.
I read somewhere that each time a memory is recalled, it is rewritten. It needs to be constructed from the ground up. The brain distorts memories; in remembering something, you are actually remembering the last time you remembered it. And so the flaws of each re-remember trickle into the next. The image becomes more and more pixelated with every recapture, until it’s fabricated completely. New clay pushed onto old clay. Childhood memories steeped in dead, heavy weight. Ironically, I might have the truest memories of anyone, being that I don’t ever recall them. Being that I can’t. Or maybe my brain is always reconstructing and misconstruing from the beginning of memory, from the moment of.
There are, however, moments in my life that I can perfectly recall. Not the context or date, but the image. They are photographic. I see every detail. I call them my snow-globe moments. Encased in glass, submerged in water, covered in sparkles. Conjurable. Among them, there’s my older sister, not yet graduated from high school, throwing the ball for our childhood dog. The sun lights up the frizzy curls around her head like a halo. Maisie is mid-throw but already extending her arm fully, her left leg tipping up to meet the imbalance. She’s smiling with her mouth open wide, perfect teeth on display. There’s Danny, shivering in my driveway in the middle of the night. He puts the windshield wiper on the hood of his car, already abandoning the task at hand, and picks me up and spins me around. There are snowflakes dotting his eyelashes, and his nose is pink with cold. We laugh.
There’s no clear answer to why these memories are the ones that stay. They’re significant, but not overly so. I have a handful more. I don’t know if I’ve reconstructed them to perfection, or if they are invented. I know they happened. I don’t know if I really know what they looked like. I don’t know if it matters.
I can just barely see the gray-green of our solitary house as we pass the entrance to Engelkeye’s vegetable farm. We slow down as we hit the downward slope, careful not to bust up our shins on the pavement. We reach the stretch of the backyard. I crane my neck, looking for the dog, but she’s not out yet. The distance between us and our dark green mailbox is deceptively long. I pick up speed in the last couple yards, not nearly mature enough to resist the temptation of expending all my remaining energy in a sprinting fury. I tap the mailbox with my knuckles and turn around with a grin. My mom rolls her eyes as she reaches me, maintaining her steady jog. She stops before me. I step onto the gravel of our driveway, but she shakes her head.
“Uh-uh. Now we walk. Cool off.”
So we do. Twigs crunch underfoot, and passing cars give us a wide berth, veering into the unoccupied lane so as not to come near us. After a few minutes, we reach the big, sloping decline that lets out into a clearing. Along the right side of the road, all kinds of peonies bloom. My mom tells me they were planted by one of our neighbors in his free time just because.
When Gram was hospitalized, I visited her only once. I was in high school; the year escapes me. It was late spring. The mud of late New York winter had washed away, and all that remained were the teeming white flowers on the trees in the parking lot. Gram was very still in her bed by the window. Her skin might have been made of the same material as the hospital gown she wore. Her eyes lit up when I approached her, which was how I knew I was someone else to her that day. I don’t look much like my mom, I just am my mom. Eileen Part II, Eileen the Second Coming. Eileen if you substitute snark for charm. Where Eileen I spoke in a kind, soothing voice. Eileen II didn’t speak at all. I kept staring at the giant, blistering bulb on the back of Gram’s hand, next to the IV catheter. It looked like some kind of alien sac. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I swear it was pulsing. I would force my eyes to meet her bleary ones, and then my gaze would inevitably drift down to her hand, pale and veiny and foreign. In reconstructing it, it’s almost comical. Hey, sailor, my eyes are up here.
This remains: the image of my mom holding the arm of the woman who raised her but doesn’t recognize her. My mom doesn’t look at the bulge on the back of Gram’s hand, but into her eyes, unflinching in the face of her greatest fear. Gram is confused. I’m standing far away, playing with the strap of my backpack, looking at the white flowers outside, the human embodiment of a flinch. This doesn’t stop. Encased in glass, submerged in water, covered in sparkles. Gram died of Alzheimer’s shortly after.
I can see the chipped paint of our mailbox again, this time from the opposite side. The oaks and pines surrounding the house are still a stubborn green. Our house is most beautiful in the fall, surrounded by the fiery changing of the leaves. The woods behind our house turn aglow. I move to cross the street to our gravel driveway, and my mom flings out a hand to stop me.
“Hey! At least check for cars!”
“Mom, please. I did.” (I didn’t).
“I guess you’ve been successfully living in cities for three years now, huh?” One of her biggest concerns when I went away to college was that I’d wander into traffic. I have an incriminating history of not looking both ways.
We carefully cross the street into home base. Luna, our German Shepherd, shoots out of the house like a bullet to greet us, wiggling like crazy. She can’t choose between taking my mom’s handkerchief or mine, so she keeps dropping one for the other. Eileen The First laughs. I close my eyes and remember, years before, descending the impossibly steep steps of the elementary school bus. Placing one banged-up sneaker in front of the other, clinging to the railing for support on my dangerous expedition. My sister waiting impatiently behind me, in a huff about her kid sister taking too long on the tall steps. My sneakers lighting up as they finally hit the gravel. And, waiting for us in the driveway: my mother’s mother, thanking the bus driver with stern, clear eyes.