Written By: Tracy Gold
My arms are shaking. I’m an idiot who always tries to carry all the groceries in one go, and it’s not a short walk from the driveway to Grandma Jean’s front door. The wheelchair ramp up to her porch still jars me. I came back to take care of Dad, and Grandma’s house had mated with a nursing home. She didn’t touch the place for fifty years then fell one too many times and broke her hip. When she finally decided to listen to the doctor about using a wheelchair and staying off horses, Dad slapped on ramps and chair lifts even though he was sick. I’m just waiting for the chair lift to split from the wall and send Grandma flying. Dad’s laid up, but at least I’m here if it comes to that. If I don’t kill myself with these groceries first.
I knock. Something crunches against the door and I hope it’s not the eggs. The dogs bark but there’s no sound from Grandma. Maybe it’s not the changes to the house that bother me, maybe it’s how Grandma has changed. No answer could mean she’s fallen, hurt, dead.
I yell her name, then hear the motor of the chair lift on the stairs near the door.
I let out my breath and shift the groceries so I can open the door. The dogs rush me. I hold my stance for the affections of Gem, but Vacuum knocks into me with a giant leap.
I fall flat on my back, weighed down by the milk and chicken breasts and laundry detergent hanging from my arms. “Mother fuck!”
Gem licks my face and Vacuum makes a beeline for the chicken.
Grandma’s hard laugh cuts through the chaos. She’s down the stairs wheeling toward me. Her grey hair’s pulled back in a tight bun above sagging skin. She’s what I’ll look like in fifty years if I spend my days in the farm sun.
“Watch what you say. You might be a mother one day, too.” Her smile lines betray her stern tone.
I groan. Typical Grandma. I don’t know if Ben and I will survive dating long distance, much less have kids one day. If I even want kids.
I shove the dogs away and get to my feet. Vacuum noses the chicken bag in desperation, but he’s foiled by the shrink-wrap. I pick the groceries off the floor and Grandma helps me put them away. She wheels around the kitchen with her lap full, pushing through the dogs. She swears she used to fall for no reason but Dad and I think she lied about the dogs’ involvement.
I pick up the bag with the eggs and it oozes raw goo so I wash off the few survivors. I place each clean egg in a glass bowl on the counter.
Jean wheels up behind me and squints. “You carried too much.”
“You know us Graham girls.” I nod at her wheelchair. “We don’t give up until we break.”
“You don’t know this family like I do.” Grandma Jean’s smile lines are gone. I wonder if she’s thinking about my mother, who died when I was a baby. Apparently, she was nothing like the rest of the family. Folks who grew up riding here tell me stories about how Mom would smooth things over for any kid who got in trouble with Grandma or Dad. “Besides, who says I’m broken?”
“I—I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Sure you didn’t.” Grandma reaches toward the egg bowl on the counter. “Give me those.”
I hand her the bowl, but she doesn’t move to the fridge.
“Honey, I need you to know something I wish I knew a long time ago.” She lifts the bowl high, wrinkled skin dangling from the arms that once lifted fifty-pound bales of alfalfa. She turns the bowl upside down. The eggs fall and crack open on the linoleum and the dogs rush in to lap up the mess, egg shells crunching in their teeth.
I gape at Jean. She’s the cleaner-upper, rule-enforcer. Mrs. Make-your-Bed and Muck-the-Stalls. I’ve tried to live up to her standards, to Dad’s standards, my entire life.
“Sometimes,” she says, “it feels good to break.”
When I get home, Dad is on the front porch in his own wheelchair, equipped with oxygen tanks. A good sign—he moved around on his own. That’s not a guarantee these days. It’s unseasonably warm for February and I’m glad he’s enjoying the weather.
His house – the house I grew up in – is also on Hollow Tree Manor. It’s off the main driveway, not hidden in the woods like Jean’s house. It doesn’t have ramps and chair lifts. He can make it a few steps out of the chair without getting too out-of-breath, though it’s getting harder these days. There doesn’t seem to be a point in paying for all that construction, not when we don’t know how long he will use it.
I’ve got groceries for us too but I’ve had enough breaking for one day so I’m carrying them in shifts. I’m still mulling over what Grandma did.
His dimples struggle to surface under the tubes from his oxygen tank. “Get anything I can taste?”
“I thought we’d have fajitas, with homemade guacamole.” I’m sick of cooking chicken breasts every night.
“Let’s hope it’s doesn’t taste like metal,” he says. Since Dad started chemo, he’s complained that everything tastes like metal.
“Let’s hope.” I head to the front door.
“Hey, Katie? When you’re done with the groceries, come out here, will you? I have something for you.”
I nod. He’s got something white on his lap—an envelope. “Dad, we don’t need to talk about that yet—”
“Hurry up and get out here.” His tone tells me this is not an argument worth having.
I make two trips with the groceries and pull up a chair next to Dad on the porch. I purse my lips and wait for him to start. We’ve got a few hours until it’s time to water, feed, and let in. I could be down at the farm nailing up loose boards, checking on the injured horses, doing anything but sitting here with my dad, talking about what to do after he dies.
“I should have given you this a long time ago.” He’s so worn down from the cancer, his skin slack and hair gone, that a stranger might think he’s my grandfather.
“We don’t have to do this now.”
“It’s not my will. That’s been with the lawyer for a long time. If you want to know what you’ll get, look around.” He gestures to the farm.
The pastures are green and soggy with melted snow, the sand rings bloated with puddles. The barns are down the winding driveway, out of sight from the porch. Dad sometimes asks me to drive him down to the field where a sycamore tree shades the remnant of the farm’s namesake, now a gnarled trunk. The original hollow tree died when Dad was young, right about the time his own father died. He doesn’t like to talk about his father but he likes to sit and watch the tree, which is maybe fifty feet high now.
Hollow Tree is beautiful, but burdensome. I’ve watched Dad and Jean run the horse farm on a shoestring budget my whole life. Add to that my student loans, and even if I wanted to move back here and spend my life working the farm – possibly losing Ben to New York City in the bargain – I’m not sure I could afford to.
Dad doesn’t need to know about my doubts. I don’t think I believe in ghosts, but I wouldn’t want to risk it by selling this farm.
“Then what is it?”
Dad wheezes and hands me the envelope.
On the front, in handwriting that looks vaguely like mine, someone wrote: For Katie, after she turns twelve (but not on her birthday because that would be depressing).
“Mom?” From the stories I’ve heard, this was just like her. She made jokes of everything, even having pancreatic cancer a year after having a baby.
Dad moves his chin the slightest bit.
“I couldn’t do it. She meant to write more but there was only the one.”
“Did you read it?” I flip the envelope over. It’s sealed. Maybe my mother licked it shut twenty-two years ago.
Dad shakes his head. His eyes are red, and he’s breathing hard.
“Why give it to me now?”
“I wanted to be here if you had questions when you read it.” Dad looked at his lap. “I thought we might be running out of time for that.”
I shut my eyes, torn between throttling him and crying.
“If you even want to read it,” he says.
“Christ.” I open my eyes. I do. Of course I do, but opening the envelope scares me.
Mom died before the rise of social media, so I can’t explore a million pictures and posts that would show me her personality, make her real. I don’t even look like her side of the family. They’re Jewish with curly, dark hair and curvy bodies. I’ve got light brown hair and I’m slim as a fence post.
If I open the envelope, I might learn about my real mother but lose some of the mother in my head. What if she’s somehow less than I imagined? What if it’s only a few words? If I don’t open the letter, I could imagine that it says anything. I could have a question I would hope for Mom’s opinion on, like what I should do about Ben in New York while I’m trying to hold Dad and Grandma together here in Maryland. If I don’t open the letter, I could close my eyes and pretend she left some wisdom for me about this exact situation. I could imagine she had all the answers.
I hold the envelope out to my dad, hoping he’ll take this decision away from me. “Do you—do you want to read it together?”
“You read it first.”
The envelope shakes in my hand. If I open it, it will feel final. Like a coffin lid slamming down on the possibilities of whatever my mother wanted to say to me.
Sometimes it feels good to break, Grandma Jean said. I rip the envelope open. It’s written on lined paper, torn from a notebook.
I am writing to you about the stories Dad will mess up. By the time you’re old enough to read this, you’ll know exactly how much you can trust “his version of the story.” (Russ, I know you don’t believe in the afterlife, but if you alter or edit this letter in any way, I will haunt the hell out of you, disbelief be damned.)
I laugh, and read the last sentence aloud to Dad. He coughs, and I reach out to support him.
“I’m alright. Maybe you should read the whole thing aloud, though. If I can’t—if I need to, I’ll tell you to stop.” He looks down. He’s never talked about Mom much. I thought maybe they were fighting before she died. Maybe he didn’t actually love her that much. There were years—right around twelve, when she wanted me to open this letter—when all I wanted was a mother. Since that was impossible, I asked Dad about her constantly.
But Dad refused to answer me and I gave up. Now that I can practically hear her voice speaking to me from this letter, I know what Dad might have felt like. It’s hard to keep reading, I miss her so much. And I don’t even remember her.
I take a deep breath and start reading again.
I guess Dad can show this to you when you start dating. Twelve-ish, maybe? Or he can just wait until you’re old enough to read the words hell and damn without shouting them at your kindergarten teacher.
Dad shifts in his chair. I let my voice lilt, wonder how much I sound like her.
Dad and I never really met. I grew up riding at Hollow Tree and he was always there. Jean’s son, and all the horse-crazy girls. All the Russ-crazy girls! I was jealous that he lived on a horse farm. He had this wavy hair that was always too long because Grandma Jean was too busy caring for the horses to cut it. And of course, the dimples. I’m sure he uses them on you all the time, like when he wants ice cream and is too lazy to walk to the fridge himself. Don’t even try to resist.
I look up from the letter—Dad’s blushing.
“She is so right about that,” I say.
Dad shrugs sheepishly.
I wonder what it would have been like to have another woman in the house to reckon with Dad. I start reading again.
Just like now, though, Dad was quiet. Serious. Your godmother Mary and I used to compete to see who could make him smile.
Sounds like Aunt Mary. She was around a lot until I was in middle school, when she moved to California. I thought she had a thing for Dad but he never showed much interest in women after Mom—at least not in front of me. He was too busy with the farm.
One time, Grandma Jean was yelling at him about something – I don’t even remember what. You know Jean; I can’t imagine she’ll mellow.
Dad laughs out loud at that part. Mom was right—Jean is as intense today as she was when I was little and would forget to pick up manure from the barn aisle.
Mary and I decided to try to get Dad laughing while Jean was in full stride. Poor Brooks, the obese goat of the time, was always the brunt of our jokes. I hope there’s still an obese goat when you read this.
Dad coughs. “My mother’s a hard ass, but she loves her animals.”
Remy, the last goat Jean rescued, died a few months ago when I first came home to take care of Dad. They never start off fat, but the longer they spend on Hollow Tree, the wider they grow.
I turn back to the letter.
I distracted Brooks by feeding him while Mary put a dress on him—it was ruffled and pink and she was supposed to wear it to dinner with her parents after the barn.
We bribed Brooks with carrots to walk right behind where Jean was yelling at Russ. The look on his face. It was totally worth Brooks pooping on Mary’s dress. Russ’ lips were curled up like he wanted to laugh, but you should never laugh when you’re getting chewed out by Grandma Jean. Learn that lesson, Katie, and learn it well.
Dad’s laughing now. “When Jean found out we had to muck stalls all afternoon.”
“You too? You didn’t do anything.”
“Jean knew I wanted to laugh and that was enough.”
I grin. Reading this, I can almost forget that Mom wrote this letter because she knew she was dying. I can see how hard she worked to be herself, to hide her fear.
I start reading again.
Like all the girls at the farm, I had a crush on your father but it was all fun and games. Then I found my horse, Mayday, lying down in her field with this horrible gash in her stomach. My god, Katie, I hope you never have to see a horse in that much pain.
Dad’s lips are set. I remember one of the boarders’ horses getting hurt back when I was in high school. We found him in the field at the bottom of a steep hill, unable to get up, maybe with a broken hip or back from a fall. We never knew for sure. He was in so much pain he was shaking. We waited until the vet came to put him down but every second he shook I wanted Dad to go get his gun.
As soon as I saw Mayday all bloody, I couldn’t take another step. Her stomach heaved up and down so I knew she was alive, but I was so scared. Mayday was young then and I’d only had her a year but I already loved her.
I can’t imagine how I would feel if something like that happened to my horse, Parker. I’ve had him for almost a decade, but like Mom wrote about Mayday, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love.
I yelled for help and Russ came. He put his hand on my shoulder and I could move again. He called the vet while I knelt down by Mayday. Russ returned and stayed with me until the vet arrived even though Mayday kept trying to bite him. If she’s still around when you’re big enough to meet her, watch your extremities. I hope she’ll be reminded of me when she sees you – she never bit me.
Mayday is still alive, though nobody rides her anymore. She just hangs out in her field, and she bites me the same as she bites everyone else.
The vet came—you would have liked Terry but she’s gone now. She was old, even then. Terry had to tranquilize Mayday to keep her still while she worked, and Russ stayed right next to me while Terry stopped the bleeding and sewed her up. She was badly cut, but hadn’t hurt anything essential.
While we waited for the tranquilizer to wear off, Russ touched Mayday’s muzzle for half a second. If any horse could bite while tranquilized, it was Mayday.
Finally, Mayday woke up, got her attitude back. She pinned her ears at Russ and lurched to her feet. Russ backed to a safe distance and hugged me. I wanted to kiss him, right there, in front of Jean and Terry.
Russ wasn’t on the same page. He never dated anyone from the barn. He’d bring girls around from school sometimes, but us barn girls were so mean we’d run them off before long. If someone was going to catch Russ, it was going to be one of us.
“Damn, that’s why they all broke up with me?”
I look up from the letter. “You didn’t know?”
“I had my suspicions.” Dad winks, and I have a feeling Mom let him in on this part of the story a long time ago.
Mom sounds so confident. I was always a mouse around boys, waiting for them to come to me. Except for Ben. I sat next to him in class and asked to borrow a pen even though I had one in my backpack. That’s about as brave as I get when it comes to romance.
I start reading again.
All the girls Russ liked were these teeny blond things. I got Grandma Rose’s dark hair and Challah-bread hips. You’ve got your dad’s looks, I can already tell.
Once, right in front of one of those blond girls, I gave Russ a giant Tupperware full of chocolate chip cookies. I’ll leave you my recipe—don’t you dare use the one on the back of the chip bag; I couldn’t stand the stain on my legacy.
I stop reading and glare at Dad. “You’ve been holding out on mom’s cookie recipe?”
“Slow down.” Dad waves his hand, dismissing me. “It’s the one Grandma Jean taught you.”
I turn back to the letter.
Russ and the girl both turned bright red. Russ thanked me and stashed the cookies in the office without even eating one. I checked the next day, though, and the cookies were gone.
I thought I would never get Russ to go out with me and I had almost given up. Then, the summer before college, we were in the loft unloading the hay truck. There was a big pile of bales near the window where they’d come off the conveyor belt. Russ was always in a hurry, so he’d run to pick up his next bale even though Jean would kill him if she saw him doing it.
That’s true. Dad is strict about enforcing his own rules, but he likes to break other people’s—especially Grandma Jean’s.
We were the only ones in the hayloft—everyone else had gone for water. Russ and I were both too stubborn to admit we had mortal needs like hydration. That stubbornness—hate to say— you’ve got it. Prepare for a lot of butting heads with your father, especially when you hit, oh, thirteen.
“Now I wish we had opened this when we were supposed to,” Dad says.
“Oh, come on. I wasn’t that bad.”
Dad blows air out from his lips, in an almost whistle, but it’s patchy, strangled. “How about we go look behind your dresser?”
I turn away so he won’t see me blush. Dad wouldn’t let me go to a concert downtown on a school night and I got so mad I kicked a hole in the drywall. We moved my dresser instead of patching the hole.
“I know what story she’s about to tell you,” he says. “It’s not true.”
“She said you would say that.”
“Well she’s right about that, but she’s wrong about this story.”
I raise my eyebrows and dive back into the letter.
I was trying to think of something loveable to say, when Russ came running to the window, slipped, and flew right out. I thought I was going to look down and see his head cracked open on the pavement, but there was a light fixture right underneath the hay loft, and he managed to grab onto it with one hand. He was dangling, swinging back and forth. I got down on my belly, reached down and grabbed his other hand. He was even skinnier then, so we weighed about the same but I was afraid I’d slide out too.
“This did not happen,” Dad says.
“We’ll see about that.” I picture the hayloft. That light fixture, a rusted cage around the bulb, is still there. Actually, it’s always been crooked. I wonder if I’ve found the reason why.
I start reading again. Here, the writing is rushed, scrawling.
“Help me back in,” he said.
I was going away to McDaniel College in the fall. It was close enough that I could date Russ, but not close enough to continue my campaign of feeding him chocolate until he finally liked me. This was my last chance and I had a desperate, brilliant idea.
“I can’t keep holding on. Can you take my full weight if I let go?”
“What do you mean, maybe?”
“Well, it seems I’m in a position of power right now.”
“You’re not exactly in the state to be making demands.”
“What the hell?” Russ’ grip slipped.
“Go on, yell for your mother. She’ll help you, no questions asked.” If Grandma Jean saw Russ hanging out of the hayloft like that after years of yelling at him not to run, she would tell me to drop him on purpose.
“What do you want?”
“Very funny. Pull me in. Right now.” Russ’ grip tightened. My palm was sweaty and I worried that he would slip out of my hand no matter what I did.
“Tomorrow night. Seven. Pick me up at my place.”
“I don’t date girls from the farm.”
“Your loss.” I swear it wasn’t on purpose, his fingers slipped in my hand a little.
“God dammit, all right. Just nowhere expensive.”
That was like Russ. Arguing even when in mortal peril.
“It’s a deal.” I hauled him in, grunting with his weight. Grandma Jean believes arms should always be holding a muck shovel, water bucket or hay bale, and my strength came in handy.
I pulled until Russ’ upper body was back in the loft, and we both stood up and brushed the hay off. I couldn’t believe what I had done. Technically, I had coerced Russ into agreeing to a date with me. I might as well have held a gun to his head. I felt so awful about it, I was shaking. But Katie, let me tell you, when it comes to your father, there are times when you need to use whatever force you have at your disposal.
When I finally had the guts to look at Russ up in the hayloft, there they were. The dimples. He didn’t hate me.
Dad laughs. I stare at him, mouth open.
“Not what happened. Your mother loved telling stories more than the truth.”
“So what did happen?”
“Well, your mother did convince me to go on a date with her while we were unloading the hay truck. But that’s not how she convinced me.”
Dad wiggles one eyebrow, and his dimples appear.
“Oh God. I don’t think I want to know.”
Dad chuckles, and I think his version of the story is about as believable as Mom’s. I turn back to the letter.
He showed up the next night and, well, from that point on he’ll do a decent job of telling you what happened.
I don’t know how this story is supposed to help you when you’re falling in love but I have a feeling you won’t have problems. You have your Dad’s dimples, after all. I just thought you should hear the story the way I would have told it. That way, if you catch yourself doing anything crazy, well, at least you’ll know where it comes from.
I’m sorry I won’t be there to tell you in person when you’re older. I can’t even write how sorry I am about that. There aren’t words.
I’m tired now, but I’ll write more stories when I have the energy. As long as I have the energy.
I love you,
I lean back in my chair, holding the letter in my lap, crying whether I like it or not.
“Are you all right?” Dad says.
I shake my head. It wasn’t the story. It wasn’t finding out I could have had this letter years ago. It wasn’t the four words I’ve never seen before: I love you, Mom. It was the line about her writing more, as long as she had the energy. This was the only one she wrote. How soon after writing this did she die? Did she fight until the last day, or did she give up? Sometimes it feels good to break.
Dad reaches for my hand, and I fight the urge to push him away, to say I’m fine without him, that I’m good taking care of him instead of the other way around.
“I’m going to go lie down,” I say.
“I’ll be fine,” he says, even though I didn’t ask.
“I’ll call for help with the horses tonight. I’m not sure I’ll be up for it.”
“No,” Dad says. “I’ll call. You go rest.”
I stare at him. He never lets me take time off when there’s work to be done. Maybe once when I had the flu. Or maybe I’ve never asked to take time off. I open my mouth to protest. Surely he needs time to process this too.
I should say I’ll handle feeding and letting in; I’ll handle everything. I’ll handle walking for Grandma and breathing for Dad. But I get out of my chair and walk to the front door.
I turn around.
“Can you leave me that letter? I’d like to read it again.”
I hand him the letter, walk into the house and kick off my shoes. I get in bed, fully clothed. I’m not going to fix loose fence boards. I’m not going to make dinner. I’m not going to worry about Ben, about student loans, about paying Hollow Tree’s bills. I’m going to stay here, under the covers, and let myself break.
Tracy Gold is a writer, teacher, and editor living in Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in YARN, Youth Imagination, The Stoneslide Corrective, two feminist anthologies, and several other magazines. She’s currently working on a young adult novel.
Tracy co-founded Sounding Sea Writers’ Workshop and is a composition instructor and M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at The University of Baltimore. When Tracy’s not working or writing, she’s hanging out with her rescue dog and horse.