Case History

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Kevin Christopher Burke/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s a summer evening and we’ve gathered for a casual family dinner. Suddenly I put my wine glass down so hard that some of the wine slops over the rim onto the dining room table. Our son stares at me in surprise and says my mouth is crooked. Everybody looks. He gives me the STR test: S is “smile.” I can. T is “talk,” which means you’re supposed to speak in a coherent sentence: I don’t have any trouble with that. R is “raise both your arms.” I do. I’ve aced the stroke test, but our son says I should consult our doctor anyway. Next morning I show up at his office with my husband. He checks me out, can’t find anything wrong and sends me to a neurologist, who orders an MRI: it shows I’ve suffered a tiny stroke.The neurologist and our doctor agree I need to take meds stat to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol. As it turns out, I don’t have these telltale stroke signs either. It’s a mystery.

I keep asking my husband how my voice sounds. He assures me it’s OK, but in my head it seems slightly off. When I type on our computer keyboard my fingertips feel a little clumsy and I have to look down at the keys, although I don’t have any trouble composing. I complain of a tingling sensation to our doctor, but all I get in response is a shrug, which means he doesn’t know what it is. Finally I develop a symptom he recognizes: agoraphobia. He tells me there are patients who react this way to a stroke, adding that doctors don’t even always know why some people get strokes in the first place. Whatever brought it on, I think my agoraphobia reflects a sudden sense of vulnerability. Suppose it happens again when I’m by myself? I’m afraid to go out. I can’t leave our apartment without my husband. One afternoon I decide to take a nap and ask him to check in on me to make sure I’m not dead.

He urges me to talk to my former psychotherapist. I call her and explain that I don’t want to resume therapy, just  to deal with my new fear of public places. It will have to be on the phone because I can’t even get into a cab by myself to go to her office. She agrees. After a few  weeks she comes up with a plan that helps me. I like her approach of investigating the symptom rather than the cause, because by then I could really be dead. She suggests I sit on a bench near our house with my husband. I pick a place we both know how to walk to and figure out how long the round-trip should take me. My husband remains on the bench. If I don’t show up in the allotted time, he’ll start looking for me. I return sooner than expected feeling shaky, but pleased. We do more practice runs over the weekend to different locations. When he returns to work, it will be up to me to set a daily goal for myself, leave our apartment and carry it out.

I invent errands nearby. Drugstore, market, cleaners. I even get my hair cut, which involves a short bus ride. It’s not easy. I feel as though the whole world is divided in two parts: Everybody else—and me. But by the end of the summer I think I’m ready to rejoin the human race. I decide to document the experience for a writing group I belong to. When I try, I can’t. Fall comes and I’m afraid to even show up for the first meeting. My therapist urges me to go. I go. The others are talking about what they did over the summer when I get there. I mutter something. When it’s my turn to read—an essay I recycled—I’m conscious of the sound of my voice as I move my dry lips. Although it still doesn’t seem quite right to me, nobody else notices a difference.

Eight years have passed since then and I continue to be well. Even my voice sounds OK to me now. But I still haven’t been able to remaster touch-typing.

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After teaching art history for 20 years to undergraduates, Marsa Laird took up memoir writing. Her work has appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a story collection about the Peace Corps in Africa, and in Toasted Cheese (“Transmutation” and “How I Spent My Summer”). She also published an op-ed in the NY Daily News about starvation in Somalia, the country where she served as a Peace Corps teacher. Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

How I Spent My Summer

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Carl Grant/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It was the worst summer of my life. But it really began in the spring when my parents were yelling at each other all the time; I don’t know why. My mother even threw a dish at my father’s head. She was cranky and I was usually her target because my father was at work and my older sister could anticipate her bad moods and disappear. But I was only eight years old and usually didn’t know how to read the warning signs.

One morning I fidgeted while she was braiding my hair. When she yanked too hard, I yelled “Ow!” She stopped and said she had enough of my whining and snipped both braids off with a pair of large scissors. If she was sorry she never said so. I cried. I looked like a girl I saw once in a picture of children at an orphanage. The only good thing was that school was over for the summer so none of my friends would see me. My hairstyle already stood out because all the other girls wore theirs loose. But my mother insisted on braids—so my hair wouldn’t get in my eyes, she said—until she lopped them off. Right after that she took me to a resort hotel in the mountains, without any explanation. We went by bus. My father stayed in the city and my sister had a job at a girls’ camp.

It wasn’t a vacation. My mother left me alone for a few hours every morning and afternoon because she had to work. I learned she had taken a summer job as a chambermaid, which meant you had to clean other people’s rooms and change their sheets and towels. If they were satisfied, they might leave you a tip. It seemed strange to me they couldn’t make their own beds. At home my sister and I did, although my mother never really taught me how. To this day my husband marvels at the labor-intensive way I change pillowcases, which I worked out for myself when I was around six and have never abandoned. But I didn’t know why my mother needed a job anyhow, because my father had one.

I ate breakfast alone in the hotel kitchen. Also lunch. My mother and I had supper together, but by then she was tired and didn’t ask me much about how I spent my day. Mornings I explored the hotel grounds. I picked wild flowers and tied them together around my head because I thought they made my ragged hair less noticeable. I also picked up stuff I saw lying on the ground if it looked interesting. When I found a few bird feathers I stuck them in my floral headdress so I could be an Indian princess. A fancy cigar band was a ring. Sometimes I took off my shoes and waded in a shallow stream nearby to watch the frogs hop around. When I imitated their croaks it scared the rabbits out of the bushes. I made dolls from twigs and straw and scolded them if they were bad. One I named Sonia after a Russian doll my aunt gave me for my birthday. Sonia always behaved. After lunch I looked through old magazines and books I found on a shelf in the hotel lobby. Best of all, I played with a dog that belonged to the owner of the hotel, a black cocker named Inky. He was always jumping on me and licking my face. But even with Inky to play with, I was lonely.

One afternoon while I was throwing a stick for Inky to fetch, a boy my age came over and wanted to join us. His name was Monty. For a few days we had fun acting Robin Hood and Maid Marion; I got him to agree that a girl could shoot a bow too. We also pretended to be pirates looking for treasure from a map we made and rubbed dirt on so it would look old. When it rained we played checkers with an old set we found in a hotel closet. I beat him.

But Monty came over to me one morning with his head down and said in a whisper so low I could hardly hear him that he couldn’t play with me anymore because I wasn’t a guest. His mother told him she didn’t want him to “associate” with the children of the help. We really couldn’t understand it and I didn’t tell my mother. I was by myself again except for Inky, who didn’t seem to mind that my mother made beds.

By the time we got home, school was about to start. My parents stopped yelling at each other as much and my hair had grown in a little. My mother evened it out so it didn’t look as terrible and bought me a barrette in the shape of a bow. At school our first assignment was to write about how we spent our vacation. I wrote that I had a great summer and made a new friend.

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Marsa Laird retired after teaching art history to undergraduates for 20 years and took up memoir writing. Her work has appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a collection of stories about the Peace Corps in Africa, and in Toasted Cheese (“Transmutation”). Last spring she tried her hand at op-ed writing and had a piece published in the Daily News on starvation in Somalia, the country where she served as a Peace Corps teacher. Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

Transmutation

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

My mother died fifteen years ago. The last time we spoke she revealed to me confidentially that she had once had two daughters. All I could think of was King Lear.

After her death my sister cremated her and scattered her ashes in the Pacific Ocean; she wasn’t sure where, she said. The night she phoned with the news, my mother traveled to me in a dream, shrouded in white. She wants me to make a memorial for her in New York, where she was born, I decided. But it was too late for an urn. I needed a grave-marker—not necessarily a headstone—but at least a place for her in my head. My daughter-in-law, a botanist with the New York City Parks Department, had a tree planted in her memory near our apartment in Manhattan. My mother had also been a plant lady, who seemed happier raising African violets than her own children. I didn’t tell my sister about the tree. She wasn’t exactly sentimental.

Finally my mother had a place to anchor her spirit after it had drifted aimlessly around in the Pacific. But the pink dogwood, Cornus florida, survived only into its first winter. The sapling was splintered and uprooted by a vandal, leaving only a blotch of bark behind. It was New Year’s Eve. That spring a second dogwood was planted for her behind a park fence for protection. She had another home now.

The new tree flourished, producing its first blooms about a year later. In tribute I bought a bouquet of baby’s breath and tossed the sprays singly into its heart. It responded that fall by producing a second floral display. My daughter-in-law, of a more scientific temperament than my own, explained it as a natural phenomenon. The tree had hoarded some of its spring buds for an autumn encore, she said. But I preferred to believe it was with my mother’s connivance. A fanciful idea no doubt, because she usually didn’t thank people for anything. The dogwood repeated its performance the following fall. Its branches were beginning to grow horizontally now, providing a haven for small creatures, a maternal instinct my mother hadn’t shown much of when she was alive. After a sudden cold snap I inspected the tree to see if it had been affected by the weather. The leaves appeared to have changed almost overnight from green to bronze, but flower-like bracts enclosing clusters of tiny red berries clung tenaciously to the twigs. Chattering little birds nibbled on the berries and a few squirrels were camped around the trunk. I shivered as I watched them. A nervy squirrel scampered up to me begging for food, but I didn’t have any.
The tree continued its biannual growing cycles for several years, until I returned from vacation one summer to find most of its leaves brown and shriveled. It had been exceptionally hot and because it lacked an umbrella of taller trees to shade it, the dogwood must have succumbed to the heat. I hoped after the winter it would come back. It didn’t. It remained barren throughout that spring and summer, almost hidden behind its abundantly-leaved sisters.

It never came back. Soon it couldn’t even be seen from the other side of the fence. Now and then I checked. No change. One day I couldn’t find it at all, so I climbed over the fence to see if it had really vanished. It had. Parks must have finally given up on the stunted trunk and carted it off. The saga of the tree seemed to profile my mother’s life. But recently when I stopped by the spot where it used to be to watch a few birds pecking at a budding ground-vine, it hit me. Although the Cornus florida was gone for good, my mother meant to stick around, assuming whatever shape she needed.

pencilAfter retiring from teaching Art History to undergraduates for twenty years, I signed up for a memoir-writing class. I’ve been at it ever since. A piece I wrote on teaching English in the Peace Corps in Somalia, “Girls’ School,” appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo (Travellers’ Tales, 2011). Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com