Ashes To The East
Francine Bankowski handed the neatly wrapped bundles of cloth to the woman before her—her slender, icy hands trembling—noting her customer’s look of distaste when they touched.
I’m cold and tired, not filthy, Francine thought, preserving what was left of her pride. The voice in her head was free of the distinct accent that revealed that she was an American by birth, but not in the same way as the woman who could pay a dollar or two for a pile of altered or mended garments and appreciate the way they fit her body, but not the effort made that allowed her to look in the mirror checking and rechecking her appearance, while other women in the world were supporting themselves and their families, despite the presence of a man.
Money being pressed into her hand interrupted Francine’s silent judgment of her customer. If the other woman returned home to a provider, who enabled the happiness of herself and children, then she was fortunate.
“Thank you, Mrs. Gordon,” Francine answered in response to the gesture, an ironic smile forming on her lips. “Goodbye.”
Your clothes are too bright, she mused to herself, as she strolled in the opposite direction down the street, recalling the purple, orange, and gold hues of the material that she had measured and stitched. The war just ended. People are still searching for their loved ones. You look like a peacock, and your celebratory fashions are rather premature.
She turned the corner, passing the kosher butcher shop, and letting the sourness of her thoughts fade temporarily. She had finished school, prior to being forcefully encouraged to wed. But that child had died, all of his beauty enclosed in a tiny box. She scowled, noting that her leather shoes were now soaked by the cold, partially thawed hunk of ice scattered on the sidewalk. Although nothing was so tragic as the fact that World War II had not been kind enough to take her husband; he was forty-six and the conflict had just ended. As it was, if he lived to be seventy, she was likely stuck with him for another thirty years. Why he couldn’t live alone with the alcohol he loved so much, was beyond Francine’s comprehension.
She was grateful that no one ever asked her opinion while she sewed clothes, or cooked on weekends for one of the city newspaper editors, or waited in line in the Catholic Church, smelling incense and detesting her need for charity. The fact that she, as a woman, could not simply say: “I have three daughters and a son… And a husband who leaves bruises on my body, and depending on how much he’s had to drink… Look at my children… Their gashes and black and blue marks are smaller than mine, but far more hurtful, wouldn’t you say? I’m married to Schicklegruber; he’s their father… No, that’s not his name. His last name is Altschuler, but I’m sure you can understand the reference. You would expect him to love them, would you not? I’m here taking battered boots and rags… The things people I work for throw out —trying to keep them dressed, warm, and fed because I do love them, and more than that I tire of our shared suffering. ”
All the things I would say, she told herself, tightening the black floral scarf around her dark hair to buffer against the icy wind. The ebony wool coat she wore was long, but bordering on threadbare, better than nothing. The city of Buffalo, with its towering buildings and bustling streets, was generally some shade of grey, befitting the overall tone of her existence.
As she spotted the tiny brick front drugstore in the distance, she smiled; a mere block to go and she would be home. Sobieski Street was populated by numerous other immigrant families—hanging their laundry from porches, speaking varying degrees of English, and sharing that single universality, food, with the block—but not far removed Main Street from the well-to-do like Mrs. Gordon, with fancy clothes and shiny cars.
But Francine never confessed to struggling; priests only listen for your evil-doing and even people who came to her aid had no time to listen and other hardships to confront. Besides, complaining was not like pouring coffee; there was no reward at the end. And so, the comfort of her own thoughts would suffice as she worked to lift her children out of what they had been born into. Her parents didn’t speak English, but her children would, and have men and opportunities better than her own, of that she wanted to be certain.
Opening the heavy wooden door to the blue house, which had been subdivided into two apartments, she could smell the rich aroma of vegetable soup. As she climbed creaking stairs, she noted that Charlotte must have started cooking already; her oldest daughter was twelve, capable of looking after the others, and quiet. Francine wished that she could leave the darkness of her own mind, the misery of her own life, to ask her daughter about the things that motivated her silence, which was also noticed in the hardness of the young girl’s expression.
“Where is your father?” Francine asked, as she stepped into the front room of their home. The scuffed wooden floors were cold, and the children seemed to blend into the shadows with the furniture.
“Who knows? It’s not like we matter to him,” Charlotte greeted her mother with a sour expression. Standing at the stove, she stirred the contents of a large pot, her youngest sister Deb, recently four, affixed to her hip as always.
“You’re quite lucky that I no longer have the energy to slap you,” Francine replied weakly, as she removed her coat. “You’ve always been a good girl. I know things are hard but respect to your father is always necessary.”
Charlotte scowled, casting a glare at her mother’s back, and she turned again to the dinner that she had sliced more than a few fingers while preparing. She had wrapped her hand in cloth, but of course Francine never noticed or remarked upon it. Her mother was so proud of her own suffering that she didn’t care about the troubles of anyone else.
“School went well.” Charlotte said, smiling at Deb, having nothing further to say to Francine as she wandered down the hall toward her bedroom; that was a daily ritual. “One of these days, Debbie, we’ll have nice things, beautiful dresses…better than anything we’ve seen mother sew; we’ll get jobs in big offices… We won’t be here.”
“How do you know?” The toddler asked, her blue eyes wide with curiosity.
“Because,” her older sister replied. “I’ve already decided.”
“What if I want something else?” Deb pointed out, playing with strands of her older sister’s dark hair, having lost interest in the soup, and possessing only vague awareness of the tension within her home. “Like a pony?”
“You can have it, my sweet,” Charlotte answered in a gentle tone. “I’ll share with you. We’re sisters, so we’re best friends for life. Climb down and grab some bowls, please. Dinner is ready.”
Five years would pass before Charlotte would escape her role in her mother’s home. Francine would wish her well, standing on the front stoop as she watched her daughter drive away. Caught in her own mental cycle of misery, she was capable of little else.
~ ~ ~
“Tell me again why we are eating in the car?” Casey Paske questioned, peering at Charlotte over his hamburger. The expression in his dark eyes suggested he was laughing at her, even before she had opened her mouth.
Charlotte turned her head to look in the passenger side mirror, confirming her impeccable reflection. Long hair neatly pinned into a bun, lipstick and powder perfectly applied; the pale pink shade of lip color was a marked contrast to the look of cold displeasure on her face. She smiled at the notion that the cigarette burning in her left hand suggested that she was elegant. She and Deb were still grasping at their big dreams, giggling in front of the mirror, in love with their hopes, more than any man, or any lifestyle magazine print out that glorified the clean and pretty image of the 1950s.
This is the worst night of my life, she mused, staring at snowfall through the frosty windowpane. I am seventeen years old and my dreams are all trash. Stuck in a car with this asshole. I might like him more, if I thought I had options. But I don’t. I have responsibilities…
“Well, I could always go inside and asked the cashier why my girlfriend is making me eat in the car,” Casey went on, speaking more so to his sandwich. “After all, it is November, so it’s not like it’s warm in here.”
“You fool. It’s cold in here because you won’t turn on the heat,” Charlotte replied rolling her eyes in his direction. “We are eating in here because what I have to tell you is nothing that I can disclose in public.”
Casey sat forward abruptly, as though he had been punched in the back by one of his Navy buddies. He seemed to be steeling himself, bracing for what they both knew. “Go ahead then, Charlotte. Say it. Get it over with…”
He seemed to be shrinking into himself. The tough young man with the good looks and the snide jokes had gone quiet, sweat forming on his face and the top of his blond brush cut; he was receding to a faraway place like a small boy. He was twenty and he was terrified. The knowledge made Charlotte smile.
“I’m pregnant, Casey. I found out last week. I’m too far along for any…”
He grinned strangely, and something in that silence sowed mistrust and resignation between them—long before perils of marriage would do the same.
“I’ll take care of you. That’s my responsibility,” he stated, the trembling tone in his voice was now steady. “We can go to the judge and get a marriage license. My mother can throw us a reception at my parents’ house. This doesn’t have to be a tragedy.”
“Doesn’t have to be a tragedy!? Charlotte exclaimed, the thin veneer of her composure having dissolved at his statement. “This is a tragedy, Casey. I’m in my senior year. I’m forced to quit because I will give birth before graduation. Do you know what my life will look like…? What this sounds like to anyone? Do you have any idea, any at all, of the way I hate myself at this moment? This is the rest of our lives…”
“No shit, Charlotte,” her boyfriend snarled, redness flushing his face. He began unbuttoning the collar of his red plaid shirt in frustration. “How about now? Is the car finally hot enough now? You knew this when we started sleeping together. People have sex all the time, Charlotte. Women get pregnant, Charlotte. Now I’m expected to help you—by everyone. I’m sure you knew all of that; you spend all of your time reading…”
“Shut up, Casey,” she replied with a sneer. “You’re just bitter because you got the wrong girlfriend pregnant.”
The slamming of the car door served as his response. He sat down on the hood of the car, pulling out a flask of whiskey from the pocket of his jeans. In the time she had known him, he only drank a small amount daily; however, the situation probably served as an excuse.
Charlotte leaned back against the seat cushion. She stared at her lover’s back; they were separated by glass and now bound by obligation. He’s a good lover, and therein lies the problem, she conceded to herself. Casey worked in a steel mill outside of the city, not Bethlehem, but a lesser company—and he had the muscles to prove it. He twirled her with an air of excitement on the dance floor when they were out and about, listened to her theories on science and learning and never had trouble buying a drink for a friend.
I like you. I like being your lover, she thought, the smell of his cologne still hanging in the air. But I don’t love you. I am expected to feel that way, especially now.
Her marriage was a consolation prize to a much-preferred science degree. No one would ask, “what college will you be attending, Charlotte?” Or “what nurtured your interest in astronomy? Women are new to those types of sciences.” They would ask her for due dates, and what she wanted to name her child.
Well, Casey is right, she admitted to herself. This happens, and so, I will give my children the support I never had. Nurture their interests and their potential to be good, well-rounded people—teach them the love of reading, new ideas and new experiences and encourage them to do the best they can with what they have been given. I’ll do it as best I can. I don’t want this to happen, but the baby has no choice either. Grow up, Charlotte.
“I’m sorry for what I said,” Charlotte confessed quietly, as she closed the passenger side door; she clutched the frame of the vehicle momentarily to avoid hitting the ground in her high-heeled shoes. “I know that we’re stuck in this, but together…maybe it will be better than we realize.”
“Maybe,” Casey grinned, wrapping his arm around her, as wet snow had begun to fall, chilling them further. “What a romantic story to tell our friends…and the children.”
“You’re sarcasm is unattractive,” she scoffed. She’d come up with the paper thin version of their story later, sparse fluffy details, should anyone ask. Other than Deb; even though she was only nine, the youngest of Charlotte’s sisters had a fairly good idea of why her sister was sneaking around with a handsome guy, but Deb was clear: Casey was a jerk.
“I know. I have good looks and a smart mouth,” he laughed; “and you have years to enjoy me. And I’ll be good to you, I promise.”
“Now that you’ve said what you had to say,” Casey shivered, kissing Charlotte lightly and turning in the direction of the diner. “For God’s sake, let’s have our milkshakes inside.”
However, as she drank her soda at the shiny countertop in the busy restaurant—it took three years into the marriage for Casey to remember that she was allergic to dairy—Charlotte’s nerves trembled from a new type of stress. Her typical anxieties would have been a source of comfort that night—nagging thoughts about the health of her siblings, poverty, social ills, the absurdity of organized religion, her future career. And those were issues she considered before she got out of bed. The daily struggle seemed more superficial: worry about her hair and makeup, staying under a certain weight, being from a certain side of the city… Things she didn’t tell Casey, or anyone for that matter.
However, through these and other circumstances, she and Deb could relate to without speaking—in their bond the sisters; not the least of which was the unfortunate accident of being the daughter of a melancholic seamstress and a negligent alcoholic. George Altschuler was only noteworthy in the neighborhood for his addiction, inability to even attempt to care for his family, and ridiculous German last name. Now, Charlotte was blessing both of her parents with a social embarrassment.
“At least you’re not Evelyn,” Casey pointed out with a dry giggle, clunking his empty glass onto the counter with a satisfied sigh. “Everyone loves your sister, as you know, and she’s not even sixteen. It’s a big reputation to keep up with.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Do you think when you speak?”
She enjoyed antagonizing him, but also took pleasure in the fact that she was getting married. In two weeks, the families would take pictures after the ceremony with the Justice Of the Peace. She would sit at a table crammed with foods, and she and her husband smiled despite their terror. Her issue would be settled. Her sisters would be there—avoiding both Francine and Casey’s icy mother Lena—and she and Deb would observe Evelyn, who seemed to collect things that were not hers every time she went anywhere. Evelyn, described as the best looking and most mysterious of the Altschuler girls, would have issues, and children, and daddies, and delusions for years to come. But in good faith, as was expected, everyone kept their mouth shut.
You can be poor, both Casey and Charlotte had heard variations of this statement over the years, but you better damn well not be trash.
After the marriage, the skyline of Buffalo became distant. She settled in Cheektowaga with Casey, off of Walden Avenue, and they existed together, largely in silence for many years. Instead of shops and businesses, she stared through the kitchen window at houses. Charlotte’s first child arrived without pomp and circumstance. In all, she had three daughters and a son. She tried to nurture them in the way that she felt would benefit them best, but it wasn’t enough. It turned out that it wasn’t enough for most mothers, in her generation and after; they tried to protect and inspire their kids, but in their own pain and socially limiting situations, fell short despite all the love they could offer.
Charlotte was aware on many levels that her children loved her, and she loved them with fierceness, but in all that came to pass, she knew there was emptiness and devastation. She was often depressed by this fact, but her anxiety overrode any sadness. Had they been closer, she would have asked Francine for feedback, but the misery of Francine Bankowski was now more of a legend, and even though she was still living, she had become like a ghost.
~ ~ ~
Hannah could not find her shoes, despite the fact that her bedroom was free of general clutter. Her sister Jenn’s side of the room was a little more messy, with ashtrays and makeup in odd places, but nothing was distinctly out of place. She scowled, stepping past the doorway of the room to investigate. They weren’t in the closet under her distinctly patterned shirts, all the rage in the ‘70’s, or with her other boots. They would not have been shoved in the back of the closet, next to her paintings or school projects, which she hid from her parents, along with a bottle of whiskey. She didn’t look in her sister’s collection of clothes and shoes, both were tall women, but their shoe size differed.
“Jenn, my shoes,” Hannah called out down the upstairs hallway, knowing that her sister was in the bathroom. “Are you still in the shower? I can’t find them. I’m not going out to party in stupid shoes. They have to match.”
She walked down the shadowy hallway toward the bathroom door. I could ask my mother, if she weren’t chronically at work. The thought of her mother, Charlotte constantly absent from the house was more of an annoyance for moments when things were hard to find, than a true problem for her seventeen-year-old daughter.
She ran as soon as she could, Hannah smirked, at the thought of her mother, sitting daintily as she smoked her morning cigarettes and then dashing from the house to act as a consummate businesswoman: articulate, tasks complete prior to deadline, and twenty minutes early. The pride of the Goldstein accounting firm. Although no one seemed terribly upset that she left early and returned late, least of all her kids.
But then who wouldn’t run from Dad, Hannah thought to herself bitterly, as she turned the knob of the heavy door to barge in on Jenn, the shower was running, but her younger sister was notoriously slow when it came to getting ready; she was probably still standing around brushing her teeth. He doesn’t hit us now, but I’m not forgiving that bullshit. Countless times. Backhanding me because I didn’t clear my plate. I can’t stand him.
“Jenn, what the hell? Why are you doing that?” Hannah asked with concern, her dark eyes enormous at the sight of her sister, in just a T-shirt and underwear, curled over the toilet and attempting to vomit. “Knock it off. You don’t need to lose weight.”
“Not fair, Hannah,” her younger sister alleged, sweat on her face as she turned toward her, a hand still on the toilet bowl. “You hardly eat. I love food, but I refuse to get fat.”
“You’re not fat, Jenn-bean,” her sister assured lovingly, teasing her with a long time nickname. “Don’t hurt yourself. It will make you crazy. You’ll end up like Aunt Debbie.”
They stared at each other, and then hugged, acknowledging within that silence the theme that plagued the family’s women, at least on their mother’s side. Nervous breakdowns. All manner of emotionally spasmodic episodes, from things as simple as burnt toast or children with strep throat. Or at least these were examples of the final straw: one of the many underlying issues for Debbie—now a mother and least favorite aunt of Jenn and Hannah and their brother, Chad—was the fact that her drunk husband had driven away with her two sons in the car and nearly killed them all. Everyone gasped, but only Charlotte knew what had really happened. Per usual, she said nothing, but between work and making dinner for Casey and the kids, she visited Deb in the psychiatric hospital with amazing faith.
“I hate Debbie. I know her life is awful, but she’s so cruel. She’s always treated us like we’re assholes,” Jenn continued, pressing her face into her sister’s shoulder for comfort. “But that doesn’t mean I still shouldn’t lose weight.”
“You’ll get skinny. You eat food. I eat junk… It will catch up with me,” Hannah grinned in a self-depreciating fashion. “I like donuts and booze… And circus peanuts. But we stay active… Out with friends, walking around, doing house chores. We burn it off, and were both virgins. Imagine how thin we will be when we start having sex. ”
“Jesus Christ,” Jenn shook her head with a smile, dark blonde hair matted from the effort to purge her body of alcohol and food calories. “Everything you say is so ridiculous, but you manage to lighten the mood all the time.”
“That’s what I’m good at,” Hannah softened her tone. She fetched a washcloth from the cupboard under the vanity and knelt down next to her sister on the cold floor and wiped her face with care. “But seriously. You will look great. You don’t need to do this. Did mom tell you to watch your weight again?”
“No. I just feel so ugly,” Jenn whimpered. “I know I have friends, but really I’m alone. My boyfriend dumped me, you know Bob…”
“I hate Bob.”
“You hate everybody, Hannah,” Jenn teased, as the pair climbed to their feet. “I’m not into drugs. I’ve tried things here and there, who hasn’t? But that’s all he does. He is a loser. So he told me that if I wasn’t going to be any fun, and was just going to criticize him… Then he was through with me, and I am an ugly slut.”
“What a jerk. You don’t need that. Remind me again of where he lives? He needs intimidation,” Hannah said with a grin, pulling her long ponytail out of a hair tie. She always came to the defense of her brother and sister or a friend. “Have you seen my shoes? I’m going to get my clothes. We can talk more about this while you shower and I change.”
“Your shoes? No. Does Chad have them?” Jenn asked, cutting off the water as she stepped in the tub to remove her clothes. She tossed them up over the plastic curtain, and they landed on her sister’s head; both found that amusing.
“Why would our brother have my shoes?” Hannah asked, raising her voice now as the water was once again running. “Why not? Now that I think about it. After I change, I’ll ask. Be right back.”
As it turned out, Hannah’s black dress took some wriggling to get into, which worked because the story that Jenn told was strangely involved; in fact, all of her stories were that way. It was just how she expressed herself. Bob Anderson was a complete dick, and not in the pleasurable way. Yeah, he was cute and yeah, they had made out several times. It was the 70s now, and if you were saving your virginity, you were caught in the past, and a prude and just a drag. Between a Catholic upbringing, thanks to their father, and the face-saving required simply because they were Polish—showing your absolute best, and leaving your less flattering, imperfect side at home. The choice of abstaining or getting away with it behind closed doors was complicated for the girls. No one wanted their secrets out— that was certain.
“But why waste it on Bob?” Hannah interjected, concentrating on her readiness as she stared in the mirror. She was now twirling her brown hair into a bun and ten minutes away from telling Jenn to hurry it up because her own boyfriend, Jimmy would be there in half an hour.
“Quiet, Hannah. I haven’t finished,” was the response.
So, she and Bob had tried cocaine, but Jenn didn’t prefer it. It made her want to crawl out of her skin. She informed him that she preferred to drink because that was what she had grown up around, after all—whether or not she shared that last detail with her boyfriend she didn’t actually disclose. Bob was miffed, but more so incensed when she wouldn’t have sex with him. She was only sixteen, she had countered, but to no real avail. He smacked her and sent her on her way. He could find love elsewhere, he said, or something stupid like that. By the time she had finished the story, they were laughing at the very ridiculousness.
Sometime over the years, their parents they resented had told them to be very selective in whom they spent their time with, but any positive influence Charlotte and Casey had on the kids took them years to remember.
“I don’t want to end up with drug issues and mess up my life,” Hannah stated firmly. “Are you done yet?”
“Just about. Maybe I want something to relieve stress, but I don’t want to get too heavily into anything either,” Jenn confessed.
“If you do, you both will end up like Gloria,” their brother Chad stuck his head in through the door, startling them both. “Which one of you losers forgot to lock?”
“Get out, Chad,” Hannah scoffed with a swat of her hand. “You know we’re up here getting ready. Have Jimmy and Ron come by?”
The youngest of the siblings nodded. His curly blond hair was always a mess and he was always smiling, but never in front of their parents. “They just got here. So, Hannah, are you and Jimmy getting married?”
“I want to marry him,” she said with a smile. Jimmy had dark hair and a good sense of humor. He was her partner in crime and together they could aspire to new things in a sense, even though Hannah had her own dreams. She loved science, even though she struggled to learn, and hoped in adulthood that life would offer more.
“Good,” Chad replied. “You’ll be the first to get the hell out of this house. Now here are your shoes.”
“What were you doing with my shoes?” Hannah laughed.
“Knew it!” Jenn’s chipper voice echoed off of the walls; she was back to herself. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“We were trying them on. We all like the red color. The six-inch heels are the stupidest things that I’ve ever seen. Not only that but you’re six feet tall Hannah, why do you need heels?”
“I’m 5’9,” she corrected. “Did you feel pretty?”
“Shut up,” her brother ordered. “Of course. Your boyfriend looked the best in them. So whatever.”
Hannah socked Chad on the arm, and he disappeared downstairs to fraternize with the guys and complain about Nixon and the sad state of the US economy. Not realizing that the Buffalo area was headed for major industrial decline. Not conscious of the fact that this was a first glimpse into the rest of their lives. Had they been cognizant of that, they might have spent less time laughing at each other and drinking their lives away and savored what was in front of them.
Of course, no one mentioned Gloria. She was on Charlotte’s list of topics within the family—such as the real reasons for divorce among friends, what exactly was wrong with Deb, their father’s own drinking and emotional problems, and a whole host of other taboo subjects—that Charlotte just swept under the rug and smiled away when the family went places and visited friends. They were still working class, Democrats to the bone, but Charlotte enjoyed acting as though she were somehow of distinguished background. It left her children rolling their eyes and being snide, and for Casey—the very most cantankerous of them all—confirmed many of his criticisms as a husband.
Everyone knew who Gloria was. She was their first child. She was always laughing as a young child, with beautiful blond hair, and a personality that aimed to please adults and other children alike. Drugs found Gloria as fast as good fortune or tragedy finds other people. And after taking an assortment of pills and powders, she went out with friends. She shot and killed a bystander to her good time. Now, twenty-two, she was sitting in prison for at least a decade. The facts were simple; the remaining emotions were not.
Her mother cried and accepted Gloria’s letters and calls from prison. Hannah, Jenn, Chad, and Casey had all hugged and reassured Charlotte of their own love—a rare display.
“He had to bring up Gloria.” Hannah sighed, having moved on to her eyeliner. “There’s nothing we can do about that.”
“Except not make the same mistakes,” Jenn added. “Will you pass me a towel? I also think we should break the cycle… Of not saying we need to say. We need to do that for our kids because I think Mom and Dad aren’t honest about things that have happened to them, and if they were… We all wouldn’t hurt.”
“Yeah,” Hannah agreed; “but we make our own choices, too. It’s not entirely their fault that we’re out having a good time and being famous among friends for our exploits. Wasting our time. It will all probably bite us in the ass, but we’ll be truthful about all of it…Including Chad’s great showdown.”
The ‘showdown’ referred to an incident that cemented their brother’s awesomeness in their minds indefinitely. Ten years old at the time, Chad had dared to refuse to eat the rest of his food. Casey was still fit thanks to steel work, but was done with physically correcting his children for most things. Casey told Chad that he would not leave the table until he ate what remained. So Chad held his ground until three o’clock in the morning. Their father went to bed in psychological defeat. It was epic. The three Paske siblings celebrated the next day by ditching school and coming home to listen to music, jump on their beds, and steal a beer out of the liquor cabinet. No one was home; they weren’t getting in trouble.
It was suspected, even in their youth, that the laxness that had taken hold in the family was due in part to Gloria. She had been horrendously abusive to her siblings as she had grown older, and of the cold truth was that they were not sorry to see her go. They suspected for all their bitterness toward Casey, that he felt the same way. The horrible, irrational things that she said to her parents and accused them of, were outrageous. Outside of Charlotte, everyone in the family had taken after their father, in saying what they needed to say when they wanted to say it. Even outsiders seem to know what was really ‘up’ with Gloria. Everyone saw it, except the ever-silent matriarch.
Casey recognized what he was looking at—when he walked in the door from work, went to the diner with friends, or ate candy as he watched the news—but he had stopped trying to have bilateral discussions with his wife sometime in the early 60s. He had never abused her, outside of being typically rude and preposterous, but she always ripped at his flaws until they were similar to open sores. If he loved her to the end of the earth, she didn’t know. If he had a girlfriend here and there, she wasn’t aware of that either. He had also stopped trying to talk to the kids. Deep down, he understood that they despised the harshness of their upbringing, but it was all he knew. He just hoped that someday they would feel more forgiveness toward him than he did his own parents.
Hannah passed him every day, wondering in spite of herself, the types of things that had happened to her father.
“We are ready to go,” Jenn announced, when at last they appeared downstairs. “A good time will be had by all.”
Hannah kissed Jimmy, and they walked together, ready for an evening out on the town. Jen followed close behind with her boyfriend, Ron, and Chad who was dateless, brought up the proverbial rear.
They laughed and drank that evening, and went to see some comedy the movies. No one could remember exactly what, when twenty years later, it was 1999. The new millennium was near. Hannah was divorced from Jimmy, who was a hard worker but his drinking and instability cost him his family, and Ron and Jenn slept in separate bedrooms and kept their dialogues to a minimum. The women had overcome their own struggles—going back to school, raising their girls, finding careers. Hannah had followed in Charlotte’s path, becoming the Goldstar employee in the radiology department of South Buffalo Mercy where she worked as a technician. Jenn became a secretary part-time, but as she was unable to mask her anxiety of going places, even to the store. In her own words, she was ‘taking a break’.
“No one would notice”, she often told Hannah; “if I get sick…my girls are more concerned about Ron. Father of the year, but we never share feelings. Everything we had as a couple is old news…”
She also confided to her sister, that she plans to send her daughters, both overachievers in school, blond with robust figures, to live with their grandparents in their teen years. If only for her sanity. Hannah shook her head and sipped some water. They had gone for coffee, but caffeine bothered her nerves.
“I guess you could. Teenagers can be hard to deal with,” she sympathized. “But Heather is five… Is that a little early to be planning?”
“No,” Jenn scoffed. You should hear the way Megan talks to me. And Ron, well… Dammit he’s no help.”
Ron took care of his daughters and paid bills; Jenn was left to her own devices and her blush wine. Hannah quit her beloved whiskey cold turkey after the birth of her first daughter, and sometimes had trouble understanding why her younger sister could not try to do the same.
Hannah nodded. “I hear you there. My girls are doing pretty well. Annalise is having a tough time; she is a loner, but she has good grades, so college is definitely an option. Rachel would be set for school, but she parties too much. I’m still trying to get services to help out with Dawn’s autism. She really struggles, and those meltdowns are horrible. But for my older two, I worry about that but I don’t want to discuss some of the things that I was into. I feel a need to keep myself better reputation for my girls. I want them to view me as someone they can look up to.”
“Don’t set your sights too high. We are all only human. You should read Dear Abby. Her advice is amazing. I always do when I’m having a drink…or more than one…at night,” Jenn paused, lowering her voice. “Did you hear that Gloria relapsed?”
“Again? Not surprised.”
“Well nobody is. It’s a good thing Mom and Dad are raising Audrey.”
Sometime in the middle of her jail term, to no one’s great amazement, Gloria became pregnant. The daughter that followed only had basic knowledge of her mother, having been in foster care for the first seven years of her childhood. Eventually, she was placed in the custody of her grandparents. It was Gloria who insisted otherwise, if only to hurt her mother, because everyone else has become somewhat impervious to her obvious disconnect from reality. Who know where she was now? Whether her tendencies were drug-induced or organic was still up for debate among the family.
At this point, the brood was willing to be more open in their discussions with this new generation. Even the man now dubbed ‘Grandpa Casey’. He had taken delightfully to having granddaughters. He always wanted a grandson, but hell, these little ones were just as rough-and-tumble, could insult just as masterfully, and cause a ruckus just as well as any boy. He was gentle with Dawn because she processed the world differently, but everybody else was subject to his teasing. If they ran through the house like a herd of elephants, he yelled. He ranted when somebody left the front door open. He even made fun of Charlotte’s efforts to be loving to those whom she called her ‘precious girls’. She basically responded that he was overweight and thoughtless, and went on drinking her coffee, cigarette in hand.
Knowing no different, the gaggle of girls just laughed. But he could still be serious. As they got older, Casey mellowed, and would try to impart advice.
“I only want to spare you the hardship”, was a common phrase.
“Study hard, and get a good job,” was another. Casey was understandably bitter because the plant where he worked for more than three decades had folded, and with it, went his pension.
When they didn’t want lessons, or lectures from frazzled mothers, time with grandma was the best, the girls had declared. She introduced them to abstract thought, art, offbeat film, and Neil Diamond —nurturing appreciation for Chinese philosophy, medicine, and Kahlil Gibran as she had always hoped.
“God exists in everyone,” she said. “Not in a set of rules.”
“The Chinese believe in a balanced way of life, girls…yes you need education, but there is so much more than that. Read Sun-Yat-Sen.”
Ever smiling, Charlotte emphasized smart decision-making, when they made cookies, went book shopping, or chatted over Sunday dinner, but never judged. She wasn’t perfect, but she adored them. Even though each as a grown woman had their own concept of Charlotte, they all remembered the love that she gave. Casey they thanked for making them tough people. After all, who could be weak in a world like this?
~ ~ ~
“Heather, turn down the damn radio. I can’t hear,” Megan ordered from her position in the driver seat of her red Honda. “No, what I said was… Four coffees… One iced black… One with eight creams and six sugars… Two with one creamer each, and one chocolate donut. We’re in a hurry. I don’t have all day.”
“Meg, stop,” her cousin Annalise encouraged with a kick from her seat directly behind the driver’s side. “Don’t give too much attitude, they’ll screw up our order.”
“Don’t kick me in the butt, Lise,” Meg replied with a dry laugh. “You won’t get your order. Besides, it’s Tim Hortons. What are they going to do? If there is anything floating in it, I’ll throw it back through the window. ”
“Remember, no sprinkles,” Dawn piped up from her spot next to Rachel; the two had been looking at GPS directions to Whiteface Mountain. Dawn always needed to plan ahead, or she had trouble transitioning and would stress. Medication and counseling had eased her outbursts related to emotional disability, triggered by things great and small, and advancements definitely helped for other daily details.
“Relax, Dawn, we’ve known and loved you for twenty-five years… We know you hate sprinkles,” Annalise replied dryly, pulling her the hood of her vest up over her spiky burgundy hair.
“Don’t pick on her,” Rachel interrupted, defensively. “Nobody wants to eat things they don’t like.”
“That’s right,” Dawn chorused.
“I’m not picking on you… It’s a donut. Relax.” Annalise groaned. Her mother and Rachel were always safeguarding Dawn’s feelings and experiences. Yes she was autistic, but Annalise felt that Dawn constantly made her out to be meaner than she actually was.
And Ma wasn’t half as supportive when I came out as queer; she snickered to herself, snapping the gum in her mouth that aided in quelling any feelings of motion sickness. I mean, she’d been as reassuring as a surprised mother could be. It took a bit. Twenty-one was over a decade ago, and her mother liked her girlfriend of a year—a woman named Renata that she had met in law school. Gram had enjoyed her too.
“How many hours away are the mountains?” Dawn asked, interrupting her oldest sister’s thoughts.
“Five,” Rachel responded, hunkered down between her two siblings, a cigarette in her mouth and sunglasses on even though it was November. She was the diva-; Black hair, tall, the gorgeous one. “But the weather looks pretty good for our trip.”
“Everything is good to go,” Heather assured, at twenty-three, she was the youngest of the travelers. “Except for Megan’s mammoth attitude.”
“Shut up, Heather,” her sister ordered, thrusting the two coffee carriers in her direction. “Pass these out to everyone… Dawn, here’s your donut. Enjoy!”
“Caffeine… Drug of choice,” Annalise stated, high-fiving Rachel as they settled in with their beverages. “This should be a good day… Even though, I wish they were still here. Can’t believe they’re gone. I wish we were taking them on a vacation. Gram loved to ski. I guess if we are putting them to rest, there’s no better place.”
Megan drove out of the Tim Hortons parking lot and onto the Thruway, in the direction of the Adirondacks. After a prolonged silence, she smiled, face pink with amusement. “Does anybody remember the time that Grandpa told me to drive away from the gas station after pretending he didn’t pay? I thought I was going to be arrested…”
The chorus of giggles that followed reminded Megan of previous years—when they were young, and everything seemed to offer hope, or at the very least some semblance of promise. Now they were women at the end of their twenties and into the early thirties, things were so much more weighted and solemn. With Charlotte and Casey having passed away, a significant portion of the stability the girls had relied on died with them.
“You’ve always worried about doing the right thing,” Heather said, pulling back the rim on her red cup and frowning. “I won… Nothing… I mean, it got you a PhD in physics, but I can’t do that. I don’t have the patience.”
“Everybody’s different,” Annalise interjected. “Are you still going to try culinary school, Heather?”
“Probably” she replied, and began to comb her blond hair, which had picked up static from her winter hat. “I’ll give it a shot.”
Her cousin nodded. “You might like that better than a traditional education.”
“Hell, I don’t even have a traditional education, and I really enjoy my job at the bank,” Rachel added, eyes glued to her cellphone as she texted her boyfriend, Joe. Their rule of contact was every fifteen minutes. “You might do really well.”
Dawn had nothing to add at this point, having turned on her headphones as a source of needed distraction. Her commentary whenever she knew that her sister was texting Joe was that he was so nice and she couldn’t wait for them to get married.
In various types of bad fashion and funky hair styles, the older girls had sat in their grandmother’s kitchen over the years, drinking coffee with her, and mulling lifestyle and job choices; regretting moodiness as teenagers and the suspicion that no one had listened closely enough to what Charlotte had said. Dawn preferred to read books with her, and Heather worked for her dad, so when she visited, it was mostly to ask how Gram was feeling.
“Meg, do you think you want to drive under eighty-five miles an hour?” Annalise suggested. “Audrey had to drop the baby off at the sitter, and she’s bringing the ashes. We will be to Lake Placid before she even reaches the next county.”
“I’m going sixty-three,” her cousin countered, the vehicle lurching a bit as she changed gears on her stick shift. “I’m the safest driver I know. Plus, we will have to wait for Audrey. She wanted to ride with the urns.”
To anyone not familiar with the situation that statement was bizarre. However, given the support and love that Charlotte and Casey had bestowed on their oldest grandchild because of her situation, she felt a private kind of grief, and in ways a resentment, toward her grandmother in particular for not telling her the type of woman Gloria really was. She’d met her mother four times, and the last was traumatic. But nothing was so harrowing as losing her grandparents to illnesses—a stroke and cancer, respectively. Even though everyone was grieving, they agreed to let Audrey transport the ashes.
“I think that Bijan and I have finally picked out a wedding venue,” Meg said, switching topics. “Grandma and Grandpa would be laughing that it took so long… Five years to do so, but we just couldn’t agree.”
“That’s awesome,” Rachel said. “You finally found a compromise between posh and cheap.”
Annalise cackled, having enjoyed some of the drama that had transpired between Bijan and her cousin over marriage. He was Atheist, despite growing up in Iran, so gods weren’t an issue, but boring centerpieces were,
“I want as cheap as possible,” Megan declared. “It will be expensive enough to fly his family here from Tehran… So we have to be smart.”
She remembered that her grandmother had been delighted by Bijan’s knowledge of science—not mention good looks—as soon as Megan had announced that she had met a wonderful guy in her physics program. Bijan became a favorite and family get-togethers, next to Joe, and wedding plans soon followed. Yet, as Megan was famous for reusing coffee grounds, everyone knew finances would delay nuptials.
All of life had seemed to move too slowly, and by the time Rachel and Megan were engaged, Casey had slumped over dead in the living room from a stroke. Charlotte had tried to resuscitate, tried to save him, but to no avail. The family came together, as they always did in times of duress, and they remembered their father and grandfather for his sturdiness and rare flashes of gentle kindness that all of his friends beyond their house seemed very familiar with.
Then life had gone back to normal, everyone hoped for positive time and more years with Charlotte. Annalise met Renata, who was vibrant and emotionally available, and resembled an Italian runway model in Annalise’s opinion; she too became a part of the family, Heather got her own apartment, and Dawn had made a bunch of friends that she spent her days with, after starting a new social program for young adults with disabilities, at which she could talk all about her love of vintage cartoons.
Everyone was on a new path, but Charlotte didn’t get to see the end results. She died on a warm day in June, which was met with gratitude—as cancer had destroyed her body. To be free of suffering was all anyone had wanted for her.
Now, a new chapter had begun. Their mothers, Hannah and Jenn, having been caregivers during Charlotte’s struggle were determined to keep the family together, or at least making contact more than twice a year to prove that their bonds were not superficial. It was Uncle Chad who had brought up Whiteface Mountain as a resting place.
“Mom loved to ski. It was beautiful there,” he said; “and you know how she was… She wouldn’t go anywhere without Dad.”
Hannah, Jenn, and the kids were in agreement. Chad has never had children—the woman he loved had left him, and he never fully got over it, so he had been invested in driving truck, and then after Casey’s death, taking over as the head of the family. The sisters appreciated this; they had in various ways filled the roles meant for their partners and were not willing to act as leaders on all fronts.
So, the topic was pondered. Annalise, Rachel and Dawn agreed almost immediately. Megan responded by checking her calendar, and texting Audrey, who was away at a conference. Somebody had to tell Heather, she was typically out with her friends, but after four messages, she responded with a “Yes, let’s do it! Where is Whiteface? In Washington?”
For the remainder of the trip, the girls reminisced quietly, each aware in their own way that recalling what is lost is sometimes harder than the actual loss. The landscape was vast and pretty—lush green hillsides dusted lightly with snow—but it only added to the emptiness that they fought to lessen over time.
“They missed everything… Our marriages, any children… I mean, Audrey had her baby, but the rest of us,” Heather began, but let the thought trail off.
“Don’t look at it like that,” Megan insisted, slowing down as they rounded a curve in the road. “They were getting older, and health wasn’t on their side. You wouldn’t want them to be here and sick… Not able to enjoy anything.”
It was a challenge to account for the empty spaces. When Casey died, Charlotte and the others left small items—like a work shirt, his favorite pen— around the house to serve as a reminder that he had been there. After Charlotte’s death, Meg made a collage of photos that were deemed her grandparents greatest moments as part of the family, most of them humorous, but all meaningful. Anniversaries, milestones, small children, Charlotte’s favorite office party, college graduations, Dawn’s many cheerful moments. A small portion of their lives memorialized, which Chad kept on his living room wall.
Heather shook her head, grinning as she checked her phone. “Audrey just messaged…calling us slowpokes. She’s already there. How the hell does she beat us at everything?”
“I think what’s most important to remember,” Annalise spoke up a bit later, smiling in the rearview mirror, as the group pulled up next to Audrey’s car upon arrival. “Is that they would want us to go on, knowing that they are proud of everything that we can accomplish, and they would be so happy to know that we have love in our lives, and are staying together as a family. Think of how much joy that would bring, if they knew that we are going forward. We wouldn’t give up; they never did…This is a new beginning.”
“Gram always talked about those,” Dawn added, zipping up her coat before leaving the vehicle.
Six women stood, in their coats and hats, facing snowcapped mountains. They held hands in silence, clinging to a legacy of perseverance and love, as they watched ashes swirl in the frigid air. The wind carried the ashes eat, high over the mountains and into eternity.
It was my goal when asked to write for ‘Madwomen in the Attic’ to reflect on transgenerational trauma, as it relates to mental health, addiction, and specific issues faced by women as they live and experience different situations. This short story is fiction, although it does have some autobiographical roots, to the extent that by the time I was a teenager, the women in my family were very comfortable with discussing certain things that had happened and certain challenges faced within our family. I was thankfully brought up in a caring environment, and wrote this piece to honor the women in my family, and to state with certainty that even though a person may face trauma, or grow up in difficult circumstances, we are all impacted by trauma, every family worldwide. It is okay to need help and get help when something painful has happened. As someone who is fascinated by sociology, specifically human behavior, I also felt it was important to explain shared cultural values and cultural learning as it relates to how people process emotions and difficulties.
From a more holistic perspective, this work is meant to enforce the idea that no one is alone in their grief or their struggle, even though it can feel that way. Love and understanding without judgment are critical to healing. I also wanted to impress that it is never too late to change patterns, get help with mental health or other problems and that the suppression of issues does not make them any less painful. This piece has many triggers, however, my main goal was to encourage dialogue; sometimes uncomfortable, but always necessary among trusted friends, family, clinicians, or anyone else someone has in their life as a support.
This story is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother.
Lisa Carter is a native of Western New York. A long-time lover of culture and the arts, she holds degrees in European history and business. When not spending time with friends and family, or drinking absurd amounts of coffee, she updates her fashion collection, and enjoying the city. As a woman with a mobility impairment who is bisexual, she attempts to be active in the local queer community and movements to promote intersectionality between social groups.