The Birthday Letter
I received a letter last week several days after my birthday. I don’t receive many letters anymore. I don’t think most people do. This letter was folded and inside of a card that pictures a cat opening a present. It’s the kind of card sold in Dollar Stores. The illustration is cutesy; the coloration is vivid. Above the drawing, it reads: “A Birthday Wish for You”. The typed letter inside the card is two-and-a-half pages long. It’s taped together rather than stapled. The third page is cut in two, just under the signature. Writing is on the back of the half of the third page. It’s crossed out, and it’s clear that the rest of the sentence is why the paper was cut in two. The sender decided to exclude it. The words on the page are the end of a sentence. They have lines scratched through them but I can read them. Well, I can kind of read them. The words are either: “take it!” or “fake it!”
I’m standing in my kitchen going through a stack of mail. Half of it goes immediately into the recycle bin while the other half into piles based on requirements. It’s eleven o’clock at night. I’m moving quickly through the mail. The letter inside the card stops me. Its sender is a friend. She’s not a close friend but someone I saw on a regular basis for a period when I lived in Manhattan. She worked for a doctor I frequented when pregnant with my oldest daughter. She’s Eastern European. She’s kind. She’s industrious. She’s had a hard life. She’s separated from her husband, and she has one daughter who is mentally ill. Her daughter stopped taking the medication that stabilizes her to have children. The break from it was supposed to be temporary during each pregnancy. My friend spends her days worrying about her daughter.
The letter is the longest correspondence I’ve received from her. All the others have been short thank you notes that arrive in January after she has received the two books I send to her for her grandchildren at Christmas. My friend is smart but nor formally educated beyond high school in her native country. She speaks English well, but her writing of it is a struggle. It’s clear she spent days composing this typed letter. The effort put into it for my sake makes me sad. I can’t speak her language so why should she know how to write in mine?
The format of the letter reads like a combination of a research paper and an informal letter. “Untitled” is centered at the top of each page.” “Dear Ann,” follows under it on the first page, also centered. A few phrases in the body of the letter stand out: “daughter moved”, “don’t know her address”, “son-in-law”, and “tricking me”.
The last thank you note I received from my friend told me her daughter is no longer speaking with her. I received it in January. I also received a thank you note from her daughter in January. It was the second thank you note my friend’s daughter has sent to me since I started to send books to her kids.
My friend who has worked hard her entire adult life, retired early to care for her grandchildren. When her daughter and their family moved, she was asked to follow and did. Before she retired and they moved, my friend spent her weekends and evenings watching her then only granddaughter to give her daughter and son-in-law time for their work and rest. She showed me pictures of the little girl whose thick curly hair is white blond and eyes are a deep brown playing in her apartment. The little girl’s features are broad yet perfectly proportioned on her sweet, rounded face. She’s beautiful. She looks like my friend.
I scan the letter. Something inside of me is resistant to read it straight through. I know it’s going to be upsetting, and I know there’s little or nothing that I can do to make her situation better. More phrases stand out to me: “horrible drama”, “almost tragedy”, and “blessed tragedy”.
I ignore the rest of the mail and move to the sofa in our den. I settle in and start to read the letter from the beginning.
thank you so much…”
The format and her difficulty with writing in English make it hard to understand the letter. And unlike the thank you notes she has sent to me for the last eleven years, in this longer letter she rambles in a way that makes me question her stability. There is talk of her son-in-law being related to mobsters and his being charged with neglect of his children. There is talk of the brainwashing of her daughter. There is mention of a psych ward and a stabbing. There is mention of her being boxed out as a caregiver and depicted unsuccessfully as mentally unstable in court.
I know how much my friend loves her daughter and her grandchildren. I remember her excitedly telling me about her daughter’s wedding. Her only complaint to me about her son-in-law was the excessive time he spent playing video games. I’m so sickened by the letter that I feel as confused as the writing in it.
I breathe. I shift. I lie down on the couch and reread the letter. My friend suggests I run two Google searches to back up her claims. She knows how fantastic her story sounds. And she knows one of my first thoughts will be about her extreme involvement in her daughter’s life. I never faulted her for it but cautioned her about how it could potentially create problems in her daughter’s marriage.
I reread the letter again. I read it very slowly. I plan to go to bed and pick the letter back up in the morning. I don’t plan to Google the references. Given what I imagine is my friend’s state of mind, I sense they’re stories she’s read and incorporated into her account to justify her part in the split. The letter is that incredible and rambling. I don’t know how I will respond to it.
But then I decide to run the searches. How can I not? My friend went to such trouble to write the letter. I move to my phone. I open the Safari app. I type in what my friend suggests for the first search. It’s her daughter’s full name and a date. There is no indication in the letter as to what I will find in this search other than it refers to “horrible drama”.
Headlines both sensational and straightforward fill my screen. Two years ago, my friend’s daughter took her oldest child with her to a subway station and, after clutching the pretty little girl with curly white blond hair and deep brown eyes, she instructed her to look forward. Then she braced to jump in front of a subway train. An observant MTA employee and some pedestrians saw them and knew something was amiss. The mother and daughter were standing with no bags. My friend’s daughter left all of their belongings in the street outside of the building.
My friend’s daughter was charged with reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. She spent the next seven weeks in Bellevue, the Manhattan psychiatric hospital. The little girl was sent there from the train station as well and put into the custody of the Administration for Child Services.
I imagine the panic rising in my friend when she received the call from the police and the terror and helplessness she felt while riding public transportation to see her daughter and granddaughter. I imagine her pleading with the admittance staff and officers. I imagine them noting how much the granddaughter looks like her grandmother.
According to the letter, after the suicide attempt, the son-in-law was convicted of neglect and my friend was given temporary custody of her oldest granddaughter and the younger grandchild was sent to her godparents. From what I can tell from the letter, once my friend’s daughter was released from Bellevue, the children were given back to her and her husband.
The second suggested Google search in the letter appears after my friend explains how the son-in-law tried to have her labeled as mentally unstable in court so that she wouldn’t be allowed to care for her grandchildren. This occurred after the suicide attempt and she was granted temporary custody and he was convicted of neglect. The suggested search words are his name, “stabbing” and a date. My friend refers to the outcome of what her son-in-law was involved in as a “blessed tragedy”. It occurred at the beginning of this year.
Again, headlines both sensational and straightforward fill my screen. Her son-in-law was stabbed and killed while visiting at midnight the ex-girlfriend of the man who killed him. There were four children in the home at the time. They’re the children of the ex-girlfriend and the murderer. My friend suggests her son-in-law was having an affair with the woman. He had told her daughter that he had a night job, but they discovered after he was murdered that he had been going to see the woman at night.
My friend then explains how her daughter never went back on the medication that stabilizes her after the first pregnancy. It was her daughter’s husband who encouraged her to stay off of it according to my friend. She had legal medical guardianship over her daughter until she turned twenty-one. She questions without directly naming it how something as serious as the attempted suicide and potential murder of a child and a forced stay at Bellevue wouldn’t lead to the enforcement of regular medication. She wishes there were better and more flexible laws to help the mentally ill. She believes the current ones protect their rights to the point that can be dangerous. She wishes the laws allowed for a case-by-case analysis when necessary. From what I recall, her daughter dislikes the side effects of the drug she was prescribed, which makes her overly tired. My friend says her daughter and two granddaughters live somewhere in Texas.
The letter ends with my friend repeating why she says she sent the letter to me, which is to tell me to not send her granddaughters Christmas gifts this year. She is conscientious and is trying to save me time and money. She apologizes for sharing the “horrible story”. She praises her oldest granddaughter for her strength. She says she waits for the day that the little girl turns eighteen and can be on her own and maybe live near her. She asks me to pray for her family.
The letter is typed but ends in pen. “Thank you again! Sincerely, …”
The Cardboard Box
Pork Chops, Meatball Grinders and Lunch Ladies
A boy recently tired to gain the attention of one of my daughters by repeatedly calling her fat. She was more annoyed by him than upset because he had started to badger her and his tactics were getting more overt. She went to the dean of her school and reported it. The boy was adequately reprimanded: A note was added to his file, he was given a minor form of detention, and he had to apologize. This is how well-managed schools handle bullying, and this is how kids who are taught that bullying is wrong and that they don’t deserve it respond to it.
When I was in seventh grade, a boy named Robert started to chase me through the halls of our school yelling “Pork Chop”. I would exit IPS or Algebra, and he and a few of his punky friends would be waiting for me. Robert was a foot taller than my five-foot, three-inch frame, and weighed a good fifty pounds more than my one hundred and ten pounds. He was the biggest kid in our school. The badgering would start as I stepped into the hall and by the end of it, I’d often be in a full sprint clutching my schoolbooks with my friends trailing close behind.
We went to a small Catholic middle school and half of our classes were held in an adjoining high school. The halls of the high school weren’t as well monitored as the halls of the middle school and Robert knew it was a place where he could taunt me. It never occurred to me to tell on him. I can’t explain why other than name calling was a much more common and accepted thing in all of the environments I experienced as a child.
Our class took a field trip to Mystic Aquarium at the end of eighth grade. Robert approached me while I sat with a friend at an outdoor exhibit. He sat to my left, and as I began to move away, he stretched a clutched hand out in front of me, blocking my departure. As I stared at his fist debating what to do, he slowly turned it over and opened it. Lying in the middle of his beefy palm was a perfectly shaped pale pink heart made of soap.
“It’s for you,” he said. “I bought it in the gift shop.”
We shared a seat during the bus ride home, and we became friends. High school started the following September and wherever I looked, there was Robert. He was no longer trying to taunt me. Instead, he had begun a very successful campaign to make me smile.
We shared the same math class, and every few days it would go something like this: Robert would drop a pencil to get my attention. Then he would shove an entire piece of loose-leaf paper in his mouth and begin to aggressively chew it returning it to pulp. When our teacher, who everyone in the class hated, would turn to the blackboard, he would remove the wad from his mouth and fling it at the board several feet from her. It would explode on impact, spraying the backboard with white bits of pulp. She would spin around and face the class, angrily asking who did it. No one ever told on Robert; she was that hated.
At lunch, Robert would wait for me and my friend Lisa outside of the cafeteria leaning against the tiled wall with a giant smile on his face. We would enter the food line together, and he would proceed to eat as much as he could before making it to the register. His face and shirt would be covered in mayonnaise and crumbs, and his pockets bulging from hastily crinkled sandwich and cookie wrappers. One day, Robert ate three large meatball grinders in line, shoving them into his mouth and chewing like an animal before one of the more astute lunch ladies began to yell: “Robert, I see you!!” … “Robert!!! Stop!!!” … “Robert, you are going to have to pay for those!!!!” Lisa and I were doubled over in laughter, barely able to push our trays through the line.
Three years ago Robert died. He overdosed, reportedly, and from what I’ve been told, there were several suicide attempts over the years. Robert and I lost touch after high school. He lost touch with most of our mutual friends. I read about his death in a Facebook post. Included with it was a picture of him smiling broadly; his bright, mischevious eyes and his tremendous, familiar grin overtaking my computer screen. If I hadn’t seen the post, I wouldn’t have heard about his funeral in time to go.
Robert lived close to the schools we attended together, and his funeral was held in the chapel of our middle school. I recognized very few people at it but noted who had become his friends in the twenty-five years in-between. Some were clearly still struggling with what killed him. Seeing his mother was the hardest part. Based on what was shared about their relationship during the funeral and after, she had dedicated her life to get him clean.
A mutual friend of Robert’s recently reminded me of a story about him from high school. Robert and a group of boys were asked to sprint from one end of the gym to the other during a race. Determined to win, Robert ran hard and fast, slamming into the mat-lined brick wall on the other side. He broke both of his wrists badly and ended what was a promising basketball and baseball school and potentially college career.
I cried like a baby at his funeral. As much as I hated him during middle school, I had grown to love him in the years that followed. I loved and worried about him. Signs of a growing addiction weren’t noticeable to me during high school, but his extreme nature was evident. I wish it could’ve been channeled in a way that led to a fulfilling life; he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
And I wish those who are bullied could recognize that the person who is taunting them is in as much pain as what he or she tries to inflict.
Up, Up With People…
My mother joined an alternative Catholic Church called Emmaus in the ‘70s. It was a newly formed, experimental community with a groovy “Up With People” vibe. Organized by a group of educated and well-intentioned people who were looking for a less fear-based, more liberal approach to religion, it was the ideal community for her.
Mass was held in the cafeteria of a local Catholic school, and we sat on folded metal chairs in front of an altar that was rolled in each Sunday. A priest, who had to be given permission by the Archdiocese to work with the untraditional community, led the masses but the adult Emmaus members were in charge. They planned all of the ceremonies.
We were allowed to wear jeans and t-shirts to mass for the first time; our Sunday Best tucked away and reserved for special events. The Emmaus sermons discussed current events such as civil and women’s rights with an overall message of equality and fairness. They were more interesting to me than the ones given at our previous Catholic Church, St. Leo’s, and at the ultra-conservative church our grandparents attended.
There was more spirited singing at Emmaus than at St. Leo’s. Depending on the song, hand holding, vigorous clapping, and raising arms accompanied it. The music group, which was positioned to the right or the left of the alter depending on the day, was a ragtag ensemble that reminded me of the gang from Scooby-Doo. Dressed informally in polyester or denim bell-bottoms with polyester button downs or cotton peasant dresses with bell sleeves, they strummed, banged, blew and belted out songs. There were a few standout talents in the group, including an opera singer. Our mother played the tambourine and sang backup on occasion.
Bible stories were reinterpreted and incorporated as mini performances into some of the masses. Largely acted out by the parents, the plays were meant to be entertaining and instructional but the kids in the community were convinced that they were designed to satisfy the theatric aspirations of the adult members. To this day, I can’t think of Good Friday without a smile. Every year, one of the fathers would dress up as Jesus in a scrap of white cloth and during a reenactment that involved other members walking along beside him, he dragged a massive wooden cross made out of fencing posts through the aisles. A different dad performed the routine each year giving the lugging and three “falls” his own spin. During these ceremonies, small eruptions of laughter broke out in the cafeteria; the kids of the community simply couldn’t hold it in.
There was a “Personal Share” portion of the mass that I have since likened to the reveals of support groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous. The shares weren’t exactly confessional, more of an opportunity to brag, complain or rant, but they possessed the same eye-opening observations that spying on my mother and grandparents’ dinner parties allowed. What was shared was by turns funny or frightening.
The Emmaus “Kiss of Peace” wasn’t the quick turn to your neighbor and extend a hand or a wave across an aisle with the occasional peck on the cheek that I had experienced at St. Leo’s. It lasted at least fifteen minutes, longer on holidays when all the members were in attendance, and involved kissing and hugging every single person in the cafeteria. You know how teenagers enthusiastically greet each other? It often went something like that with the adults revving up, spreading their arms and smiles wide as they moved quickly towards their mark. What followed felt suffocating, although it was always well intended, and I wrestled my way out of at least one long embrace every mass. Announcements signaled the end of, what by that point, had become a tortuously long time for a kid to sit on a metal folding chair.
Despite the entertaining and often-hilarious theatrics during the mass, all the kids wanted out by the end. The ceremonies regularly ran over ninety minutes. The adults loved the hour of Coffee, Cake & Conversation that followed but the kids dashed from it like rats abandoning a sinking ship after grabbing donuts and Kool-Aid. We would meet up at designated spots and do one of three things: Scale the high school’s metal security gates and explore the rest of the school; play outside on its sports fields; or pile into one of the parents’ cars and listen en mass to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 while laughing about what we had just witnessed during mass.
My mother loved Emmaus and still does. She’s now in her eighties and remains a very active member. My siblings and I stopped going regularly in high school and completely stopped when we went to college. All of the children of the original members did the same. It’s a wonderful, supportive community but it was our parents’ concept of an ideal alternative church, not ours. What I liked the most about my time with Emmaus was the kindness of the members. I spent countless hours playing in their homes with their kids, which in retrospect, I believe was offered to give my single mother some time to herself. They brought meals to our house when she was sick and the entire community showed up on one moving day to help when my mother felt overwhelmed. It’s a community in the truest sense of the word.
Sunday Best, my second novel (following my first The Adjustments), was inspired by my time with Emmaus. One of Sunday Best’s plotlines has its roots in a church experience. Sunday Best is a comic mystery and involves an alternative Catholic Church called Unify founded in the ‘70s. Unlike Emmaus, a guru and a clairvoyant run Unify, and the storyline is potentially linked to two gruesome crimes committed in 1988 and 2017. Like Emmaus, Sunday Best’s liturgies regularly include mini-performances, personal shares, and a kiss of peace, but the Unify members and their antics are fictional.
My friend, the playwright, Jacque Lamarre and I will be discussing how to include friends, family and foes in fiction without upsetting them or getting sued at the Mark Twain House Writers Weekend on September 29-30th. Jacques has written over twenty plays and I’ve written two novels based, in part, on personal experiences. The Q&A is titled: “How to Avoid Lawsuits and Other Awkward Encounters.” Attorney David Polgar will join us to give his legal perspective. If you’re a writer or interested in becoming one, or just like to read and talk about it, please join us at the event.
Another attorney friend recently asked me about Sunday Best. When I told him its plotlines, his response was, “My God, where do you come up with these ideas?”
Flying Porta-Potties & Other Curiosities