Writing contest: Memoir

FIRST PLACE

Cottonwoods/Wing/Birds/Clouds: Entries From a Galisteo Chronicle by Eleanor Channell, Galisteo

Nuthatch punctuates

old cottonwood bark —

too long since I’ve written

Fall is beginning to seep in at the edges of our days. This morning the harvest moon waits in blue sky above the dark peaks of the Ortiz mountains. Our house rests on the hill in Galisteo village, where sun and moon are in opposite corners for now. The air is cooler these mornings and nights. Even on warmer days there are hints of winter caught in the wind — cool notes, spicy notes, an occasional golden cottonwood leaf driven further down the road, a feeling of wistfulness to tap into.

Here there are clouds to entertain us, high theater in the half-sphere of sky we’ll never wander far from. The buzzards have already left for Mexico. Was it something or nothing playing dead in my head?

We have winter skies these days, without winter weather. The clouds, rather than heaping up into billowy masses, stretch out in swaths, as if someone is plowing the heavens, clearing paths of blue, the rims of clouds like snow banks  on either side of wide blue roads that stretch as far as anyone can see. Each day my husband pours what water we’ve saved into the birdbath. When have small gestures gathered such meaning?

Earth’s curve

sunrise

the fiery edge of the bird feeder

I find a sea of plenty in this brightness. My mind’s eye notices shape and form independently, before my true sight can recognize what an object actually is or establish its rightful place in the physical world. In a split second, a cottonwood leaf stirring in the breeze is the rarest bird. A realtor’s sign is a beautiful painting placed in a field by an artist who thought passersby might enjoy the sight. A sudden shadow is one of the many ghosts that frequent our eastern portál.

Late hummingbird flies backward

then tries the red lantern

for nectar

These evenings, we watch the far-off plains slowly darken into musty plum while creek cottonwoods filagree silver. Most of us cannot recall the last time we heard the church bells ring. There’s the church. There’s the steeple. These are boarded-up artifacts. No one stops here much except to sketch or paint. The old graveyard is full. Some of the names have rubbed off the tombstones. One night we saw two dark figures clamber over the graveyard wall, swinging lanterns beneath the bright stars. The things we see, the things we don’t. Feathers fluttering are not always wings of peace. We heard feathers sweep the high desert air before a Cooper’s hawk plucked one songbird from the seed-strewn ground. All these gravestones where you’d least expect them.

I write because my life depends upon it. The randomness of pain is something I cannot change. I live, believing in my own mortality. I don’t know if I have another ear infection, a nerve disorder, or a tumor swelling within my brain. I need to write because it’s something I can do. Feathers help birds balance. Whichever way the wind blows, they face it, plumage held in place.

Copper leaves

shaken by wind

coin phrases in a new tongue

The first dusting of snow has frozen overnight. Corn snow in the Galisteo Basin. How fitting we should call it that. At this time of year, corn has been harvested, dried, preserved in limewater, ground into masa or kept whole-kernel for posole. I wonder which houses in the village have pots of posole simmering on the back burners of their stoves. I vaguely hear the shaking of a baby’s rattle, the sound hard pellets of hail make as they scurry about on the roof and overhangs. Then the sun comes out, enticing the nuthatch back to his endless task: inserting seeds into tiny notches previously drilled by woodpeckers seeking insects, so that he can crack them into beak-sized bits. Upside down, he looks at me in his harlequin mask, pausing a millisecond, seeing me, only in part, as I stand before my study window, the feeder full. It’s as if the showers never fell.

With each sunbeam

vigas creak

adobe sighs

The cottonwood outside my window has gray and rugged bark, bare and brittle branches. From where I sit I see its inner strength, its resolve to continue. It waits, it stands, a witness to the slowness of time and to the ripples of change. Will a bird rest on one of its branches? Will the wind move its branches, all at once, into music? Time is of no consequence. And yet it is.

How perfectly my desk is placed in the shade of this noble tree that stood when Tano Indians first made Galisteo their home, that stood when the Spanish claimed this hill for their Lady of Sorrows and lined houses like ours beside it. A tree, that some villagers call a “weed,” still stands.

Milk skies

when ravens cry

trees barely shiver 



Writing contest: Memoir

SECOND PLACE

Coming Out to One's Family by George Bereschik, Santa Fe

Every family is different; every “coming out to your family” story is different. Here’s mine: We were a pretty normal family. Dad made a good living, Mom was a homemaker, four kids, a loving family, but not overly communicative or demonstrative and certainly not “affectionate.”

I knew I was “gay” when I started high school, though that word wasn’t in use at the time. I was a queer, a faggot, a fairy.

At the time, I never discussed my sexuality with anyone, and certainly not with my family.

I wasn’t worried about rejection or being disowned. My family has always been supportive. For instance, in college I left the Catholic church and got involved with “Jesus Freaks.” I was afraid to tell my family that I was no longer Catholic. When I did, we talked a lot about it, and they accepted it. So it wasn’t fear that led me not to tell them, it was more being uncomfortable around the topic. It just wasn’t discussed.

I moved from Pittsburgh, PA to California in 1979, aged 28. Friends from college had moved to Napa, and when I visited them for vacation, I knew I had to move.

In Pittsburgh, I was out to my closest friends, and even a few people at work. But I didn’t feel comfortable about it somehow. California would be a new start. I could be completely honest and true to myself. In California, I was completely out. Free and gay.

I met my partner, Gary, in 1982 and moved in with him. My family knew that I was sharing a house with a man, and I told them about Gary — where he worked, how old he was, that he had four cats. But that’s all I said.

I went home for visits every year or two. During one visit, Dad had a “talk” with me: Have you ever thought of “meeting the right girl and settling down and getting married?” This is the line I promised myself if he said it, I would come out. But I didn’t. Dad went on to say, “I know a few bachelors — you may think it’s nice now, but it’s a lonely life.” I assured him that I’d be fine.

Dad died at age 60 in September 1984. I think he knew I was gay, especially judging from this conversation, but I never officially came out to him, or any of my family.

After Dad died, Mom visited every two years (I’d go back alternate years) and stayed with us. Gary and I didn’t share a bedroom (which is a whole ‘nother story). She liked Gary and he liked her. We all got along and had fun times together.

And still I never told her. I just assumed she had figured it out (I mean, two grown men living together for years and years) and didn’t want to talk about it. Mom had a gay brother, my Uncle Lou, who died in 1973 at a young age, and she would often call me “Lou.” I assumed she knew. Just as I assumed my siblings knew.

Fast forward to 2009. Gary died. Mom called me every day for two weeks to see how I was doing. Five months later, I did my back east “crying tour,” visiting family and friends. The first thing I said to Mom was, “How did you manage to get through it when Dad died?” I equated my loss to hers, thinking that she knew that we had both lost our life partners. We talked and cried together. I said how much I missed Gary, how hard it was. And still I never “came out,” never said the words, “I’m gay. We were partners. I loved him.”

In 2010 I met my now-husband, Art. I called Mom every Sunday, and one time I said something to the effect, “I’ve met a new man. We’re dating. I think I’m falling in love again.” And we moved on to more mundane topics.

The next day, my sister called me. “Umm ... I think you outed yourself in your phone call yesterday. Mom didn’t know you’re gay.”

What? How could that be? How could she NOT know? Oh. My. God.

So I called Mom. There was a lot of crying, but no accusations, no yelling, no attacks. The conversation boiled down to “I thought you knew.” “How could I know if you never told me?” I said I was sorry for not telling her. I wished I could turn back the clock and do it over and tell her. Let’s just move forward. She said, and I won’t ever forget this, “I’m not upset that you’re gay. I still love you. I’ll always love you. What hurts is that you didn’t tell me.”

Though she died before we moved to Santa Fe, Mom did have the chance to meet Art. She really liked him. I know that because she would good-naturedly rib him. She only joked with people she liked. And Art liked Mom. (Well, who wouldn’t?)

Turns out that my siblings had figured it out. Even my nieces and nephew figured it out. And didn’t bring up the subject. Yeah, because that was MY responsibility to bring it up. And I didn’t.

I’m glad Mom knew the truth about me. I’m sorry it happened the way it did. I’m glad she liked Gary and Art.

The point of this story: Looking back, I should have come out. I wish I had. ◀



Writing contest: Memoir

THIRD PLACE

Simple Ambiance by Rachel Sue Stofocik, Santa Fe

My parents love Christmas, and creating holiday ambiance.

The nights were always deep and lovely in my childhood home, out in nowhere — Pataskala, Ohio. The stars at night were a respite from the long, concrete winter days. That rich darkness, that enveloped the wrap-around-porch, house-on-the-hill, made the Pottery Barn candles and the millions of Christmas twinkle lights even more compelling than the country house holiday card purchased by the thousands from Hallmark every year.

The butter and olive oil simmered for the naked pasta, and the fishy smell of flaky smelts fried in garlic and oil was strangely comforting since they only made their appearance once a year. The table was dressed in red, the barely-used-cloth napkins sat next to the floral China and the wine glasses were set at each place — even for the kids.

We were dressed up too! We shed our oversized Buckeye sweatshirts and jeans and wore our newest Christmas ensemble from the Eastland Mall across from Olive Garden. Nothing too fancy of course, my younger brother, Nick, in his trademark vest, my mom in black slacks and a Christmas blouse afloat with shoulder pads, my dad in his sap green sweater that was still decent save the splash of oil it suffered the year before, and I would wear some black dress from the Gap. You could say even the family was made to twinkle.

But gramom didn’t have time for ambiance. She would come down from her room dressed in her Bishop Hartley High School, hand-me-down uniform sweater, still bearing the insignia “Bridget Ryan” on the pocket from the girl who gave it to me when she switched schools. Gramom smelled of Vitamin E cream and burnt toast and peanut butter — her favorite meal.

She would go straight to the sink to start dishes, but would be stopped short. “Mother! There are too many cooks in the kitchen here, just go sit down and enjoy yourself.”

That was the Italian banter that decorated the harmless tension between my mom’s love for holiday spirit and my grandmother’s no-play work ethic. Once my parents consumed enough oakey-buttery chardonnay and two rounds of Anne Murray’s Christmas cassette tape, we would sit down to eat the Italian tradition of fish and pasta. We looked forward to the meal all year since we never really had fish except on that night.

With the rest of us distracted by the handsome surroundings and comforting food, gramom would stealthily get up to grab ketchup from the fridge. She would place it down on the sacred table setting and begin to cut up her pasta. When my mom noticed, we’d hear, “Mother! What kind of Italian are you that cuts up your pasta? And I don’t want ketchup on my nice table. Jeez, it doesn’t need ketchup!”

Nick and I would laugh at yet another one of gramom’s eccentricities.

Once the traditional ketchup argument waned, then came the other tradition of trying to get gramom to drink wine. Dad would pour her an eighth of a glass and beg her to drink some.

After much back and forth, gramom would squint her eyes, purse her lips take a sip, and respond, “it’s so ugly!”

My grandmother was not buzzed even a single day in her ninety-two years.

Full and flushed, we’d then gather in front of the tree and start dancing to Christmas music. Swaying back and forth and clapping off-beat, she’d declare, “Hey Ms. America (she always called me that), there’s nothing better than dancing!” She would not let herself dance too long, however, for the floral dishes awaited, and she hated the dishwasher.

My gramom was Italian, but she wasn’t what you imagine when you hear the word, like some Trattoria in NYC or the grilled radicchio you watch Giada or Mario swearing by on the cooking channel.

No, she was the daughter of immigrants from Italy. She survived the Depression, diphtheria and scarlet fever. My mother loved ambiance, but my grandmother loved practicality and frugality. Really, she was before her time. Before the labels existed, she was an environmentalist and a minimalist. While we were caught up in the consumerism of the nineties, gramom was washing paper plates.

She could use one can of Folger’s coffee for over a year. She loved cheap cookies for Christmas and the cheapest McDonald’s hamburger even more. She barely drove a car and preferred to speed walk to any destination. She saved anything and everything, and all of her drink ware came from old jelly jars. Her most prized piece of clothing was her Babushka, which kept her from “catching cold.”

At her funeral, I learned too that she was quite the champion for abused women, her best friend, Helen, confided to me. Helen never used the word abuse, I am not sure it was in her vernacular; instead, she said “my husband was not nice, he yelled a lot and was never nice to me; Sue, your grandmother, saved my life really, she told me that I could come and live with her if I left the house. Finally, I did and we helped each other. Your grandmother and I were the greatest of friends!”

I think of my gramom a lot these past couple of years. We all complain about masks, COVID fatigue, and not being able to travel, but we forget that we come from a whole generation of survivors, who struggled a lot more than we will ever know. So, as I strive to create twinkling ambiance this holiday, which I love and cherish, I will also try to incorporate some of my gramom’s simplicity. She was happy with a watery cup of coffee, with burnt toast and peanut butter, and most of all with simply doing what was right for others, despite her own hardships.

Maybe consuming more presents, more wine and more expensive fish is not essential, maybe it’s just the harmless banter and the dancing that count. ◀

SECOND PLACE

THIRD PLACE

(2) comments

Amanda Barusch

I was transported by the Gallileo journal (first prize in Memoir). This lovely hybrid reminds me to slow down and pay attention to the details of the world around me. Thanks for a wonderful read!

Ari Barusch

Wow that first place story is gorgeous, the visuals are so vivid and I love the extended use of the birds as, maybe, metaphor? Unless I just don't fully understand, but my heart was very full reading the section about the birds using feathers to balance no matter which way the wind blows, it spoke to me in the midst of a hard time and I love it, I can't wait to see what else Eleanor has in store.

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