Captains of the Mother Ship

Photo by Jennifer Lucil

At the Four Seasons residential community in Clifton, New Jersey, you can go for a walk. But make sure you bring a key fob. If you decide to take the stairs instead of the elevator and you do not have a key fob, you may get locked in the stairwell between your mother-in-law’s third-floor apartment and the first-floor exit.

The fact that my husband, David, has experienced this particular form of captivity is no surprise, given his tendency to act like a cooped-up animal when we venture from the Southwest to visit my mother in New Jersey for the holidays. To further understand his frenzied sense of containment, consider that David is a guy who likes to get out of his immediate space to feel content. After a few drinks, he might tell you about the time he swam across Walden Pond when dared by his carpool colleagues on their way to work one day.

We have become accustomed to calling my mother’s apartment “Mom’s castle,” conjuring up all manner of comparisons to an archaic fortification. There is, indeed, a watchman at the entry like a knight on guard, and an encircling turnpike like an impenetrable moat. It is not an exaggeration to say that pedestrians take their lives in their hands to venture out of the community gates.

When I visit my Mom, my sense of independence decidedly shifts. I have felt constrained, too, only for me, it is guilt for having moved with my husband and twin boys 2,000 miles away to New Mexico that pulls at my gut, never mind that the move occurred several years ago. And now the dawn of a new year conjures up a fresh ache in the form of my mother’s progressing dementia. Dementia, you son-of-a-bitch, did you have to make these visits even harder than they already are?

The woman who stands before us now needs us to translate meanings from the wider world.

“Mom, this object, what does it do?”

You use it for your hair.”

“What do you do with it?”

You dry with it.”

“So what do you call it?,” and then tears because she can’t piece those words together. The concepts are quickly becoming ridden with fissures like an old baby blanket; the fabric of words, too fine to hold the meaning of language together.

What stage is it, one might ask? If I categorize, identify, or classify the symptoms, as humans do, I can supposedly place some distance between myself and the disease.

Mom’s stage is somewhere on the downhill of forgetting how to cook family recipes, wondering who all those relatives were who gave her big hugs at a family wedding, and speculating what in the world an ATM card could be for.

My sister said that in recent weeks, Mom had been saving items for my sister to name—a razor, dish soap, a piece of broccoli—before her visit to the supermarket. Provided with a name, mom could get assistance from someone in the market to help her find those essentials.

We were confounded last year, when Mom bungled the Christmas Eve meal.  For all the years I had grown up in my Italian-American household, cultural roots came alive during the holidays. We went to church intermittently when we heeded the call for funerals or holidays, but we were more devout about food. Parmesan cheese from the Italian store, pasta at least twice a week, good tomatoes and sauce were always on hand. On Christmas Eve, Mom re-enacted the Italian tradition of a seven-fish dinner in spite of the fact that we kids and my dad mostly only ate shrimp. She toiled to make fried calamari along with the shrimp and broiled fish, occasionally even the baccalá (salted fish) like her father did.

But what we cared most about was the pasta puttanesca Mom made. One of the handful of Italian words we knew was “putana,” the root word of the sauce, which meant “whore” in Italian. Like a prostitute, the sauce had everything in it—olives, capers, anchovies. The joke spiced up the memory of Grandpa in the kitchen. He was a good cook who always had the stub of his cigar somewhere in his kitchen, and we liked to think that the real secret of the sauce was a little cigar ash.

For a Mom who did not have a professional life outside the home, cooking was not only a tie to the past, it was an avenue for creativity and inspiration. Mom was one of those people who actually read cookbooks. After reading Marcella Hazan’s, Marcella Cucina, for example, she explained to us that Sicily’s food was so interesting because the country was invaded multiple times. The cuisine had Greek, Spanish, French, even Arab influences, and Mom could showcase the variety.

Last year, I remember looking forward to my mother’s cooking. My southwestern habitat seemed to me more than a desert by its region—it was a desert of Italian specialties. On my commute to work, I always mistook an oversized, pink crystal in a shop window for a prosciutto crudo. Time and again, the mirage would emerge as the storefront for an herbal-CBD shop, not the deli display case of an Italian salumeria.

So we were all disappointed to find Mom in confusion in the kitchen and the ingredients dissociated from their place in the family recipe. The anchovies were unopened on the counter along with a half-opened can of tomatoes.  There were no olives or capers in sight. “What do I put in the pan first?” she asked. My sister and I were angry and tired, having assured Mom to make a simpler meal of “just the pasta” for dinner that year. We had taken the kids skating in the afternoon and were ready for the meal before the exhaustive night before Christmas. “What happened, ma?”

We could not have known that we were witnessing the unraveling of more than the sauce; it was her identity that had begun to fade.

Mom’s stage of dementia is confounding for everyone, with the fiendish promise that the coming being will forget who all of us are—friends, cousins, grandchildren, daughters, us. Me.


So let me stay here for a moment before we drive away from The Four Seasons Community. As irksome as it may be to visit, I know the fact of it in our lives is temporary. And that’s the great crackup, yes? When we know nothing lasts, we can all just walk about like jolly elves in Santa’s magical garden of forgetting.

Speaking of Santa, there’s a God here. It’s the God Safety, and if you eventually go for a walk, know that every surface will have a thick spread of rock salt. It is sprinkled liberally even if there is no form of precipitation in the long-range forecast and seniors who walk here seem few and far between.

The clubhouse is grand, with chandeliers, a ballroom, and an indoor pool under a sky of windows. If you are a relative, you can only access the clubhouse if you are escorted by a resident through the doors. You may not use the exercise equipment or enter the billiard room unless you are 18, of course.

The complex was chosen by my older sister because it is within driving distance of her house and has all the amenities. My sister and I often fretted about Mom choosing to stay in the apartment when she could be living it up at the grand clubhouse down the hill. I’d call and nag by phone, “Mom, look at the schedule of activities at the clubhouse. Mom, why don’t you go to the chair yoga class?” My sister had the most effective method. She would show up with her kids who came running around in bathing suits. “Grandma, Mom said we were going to the pool today!” 

All the while, maybe Mom really just wanted to say, “I don’t want to go to the fucking clubhouse.”

Leave the complex by car, but be prepared to allow a grand gate to close behind you. Re-entry is allowed only if you provide the full name, building number, and apartment of the person you are visiting. Calling Uber is a nightmare, unless you are willing to walk out dragging your suitcase to the address of the Greek Orthodox Church across the street so the driver can find you curbside.


At this juncture in our trip to see the relatives for the holidays, we would typically rent a car and drive to see David’s mother, Virginia, who lives on Cape Cod. She is six years my mother’s elder, 83 to my Mom’s 77 years.

My wise sister, Liz, (who hosts Christmas and leaves the day after to visit her in-laws in Canada but usually takes care of Mom) asked the question: “Would you consider taking Mom to Cape Cod with you this year?”

So it was we found ourselves packed into Mom’s Honda Accord, our twin 13-year-old boys in the back seat with Grandma Roz, David driving, and me in the passenger seat. It was, perhaps, a small way to make up for all the years I have not been present. Mom, a longtime driver who once braved the New Jersey turnpike on a daily basis to get to her local stores, now sat meekly in the back seat.

Early in the drive, she asked, “Don’t you use the computer?” in a fretful voice. She meant the GPS. The navigation technology (iPhone app and its forebear, the GPS gadget) had existed through all the changes in the latter part of her life—divorce, multiple knee surgeries, major move out of our family house.

The navigator’s dependable female voice was a comfort. Mom consistently used the GPS whenever she drove to and from my sister’s house, 30 minutes away. Even though Mom had learned how to drive to Liz’s house a different way than the GPS told her (a toll route was easier for her), she always kept the voice on “just in case something happened.”

We had experienced this trip multiple times and wanted to use alternate roads to avoid I-95 for a while, so we kept the GPS lady off. The winding road of the Hutchinson River Parkway lulled us forward and onto the Merritt Parkway, with its winged sculptures and arched bridges of the WPA era. Our next stop at Papa’s Pizza in Connecticut served a pie that was so extraordinary to us, the taste of it brightened the next set of interstate highways and gave us hope of reaching the sandy peninsula before nightfall.  We finally disembarked at Virginia’s house in East Harwich, Massachusetts, on the eve of the new year.

In the gray-shingled home on Meetinghouse Way, my Mom and Virginia embraced, gathering each other up in an assemblage of fragile bones and merry Christmas wishes. They did not talk or see each other often, but there was a bond of having twin grandchildren, the joy and grief of having kids visit from their home so far away.

Mom seemed genuinely impressed by all the “beautiful things” in Virginia’s home, an accumulation of family treasures—antique sideboard, grandfather clock, oriental rugs. She noticed the paintings too, landscapes in oil that spoke of New England in painterly shortcuts, fisherman at the shore with his line in a flowing river, hills with old mill in the background.

These objects covered the house like a blanket of snow. In myriad ways, they were all reminiscent of Virginia’s childhood in Rockville, Connecticut, of the 1930s, where the local textile mill would dump red dyes into the river at 4:00 p.m. each day, and her parents served a roast at the walnut dining table at six.

The move to Cape Cod was a rebellious risk in the 1960s that suited Virginia and her eccentric husband quite well. Now on her own at 83, Virginia’s life pulsated through her role as parish nurse (having been a school nurse for many years). The chatty network of senior, church-minded ladies shared stories about who was divorcing, who was in the psych ward after a breakdown, and who had died that week. There were choir rehearsals, church breakfasts, and funeral after funeral.

“I bought a roast beef for us from Ferretti’s market,” Virginia announced, assuring us that this meat was not from her freezer downstairs. David and I feared that freezer, with its pounds upon pounds of crystallized meat that Virginia bought on markdown at Stop and Shop. The freezer was bought ostensibly to manage her depression-era habit of stowing away meat whenever possible. The habit extended in this day and age to most foods on sale. In the refrigerator upstairs, for example, you could find multiple packages of cheddar cheese with past expiration dates, half-filled jars of condiments in varying states of decay, and questionable produce.

The “spoon” roast beef from Ferretti’s, however, was recently killed, and it was for our special occasion. David’s brother and 16-year-old niece came the following day for dinner, and we sat at the dining table together. Brother Elliott carved the meat and served it up to the “ahhhs” of the mothers, while niece Caroline shared iPhone pictures from her sweet sixteen party and let slip that the cute boy on the dance floor was a jerk who “just wanted to get in her pants.”

But the thing of great consequence. The most remarkable thing, aside from everyone getting along mostly and putting up with each other without excessive drinking was this—the roast beef that my 83-year-old mother-in-law cooked was delicious.

Later, we sat in the music room. Some of David’s old friends stopped in before travelling home to Maine or Vermont, and the talk was of the sailing team and adopted children and the tornado from last fall. David’s own journeys were ever-present in conversation, as he sprinkled his references to places he once lived abroad, like Colombia and Ecuador.

Virginia’s friend, Pat, showed up at the door with a big hello.

I had first met this younger lady (in her seventies) with her silver bob and cute figure in the driveway of the house. This was last summer, and Pat was wearing a stylish bikini with a little skirt, rattling at hyper speed that she was just dropping by to bring Ginny a basil plant and check in on her. Pat had grown up in a row house filled with siblings in Lowell, Massachusetts, and to this day, she gravitated to a home with the promise of a little banter and a drink. Pat was a church friend, of which Virginia had many, but Pat stopped in to see Virginia on a regular basis, typically at 4 p.m. to share a glass of bourbon.

The friendship with Pat, having begun at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit (or “Spirits” as they would joke), had deepened through Pat’s divorce and new marriage to a former psychiatrist-turned-sailor who left on his yacht for months at a time. When Pat’s only son died of an opioid overdose, Pat came to the house and said to Viriginia, “Brett’s gone,” and she sat in the music room to cry.

One December day on the week of the death five years ago, Virginia had Pat come with her to church. Virginia told the ladies in the community room that Pat “was a little tender,” and they pulled up a chair for her. Together, they decorated wreaths to deliver to the nursing home. And they moved on.

At one point in our current holiday crowd, Virginia brought over an object to share. Her father’s violin had been sitting in the closet. “Would it be worth it to repair?” she asked me. Although my violin experience dated mostly from high school, my parents used to marvel at my dedication to the instrument. My aunt even had me play the sappy Barbara Streisand tune, “Evergreen,” at her wedding, and I recall that there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Viriginia offered me a bow that was just a shred of horse hair, but I played a scale as warmly as I could. 

You play violin? I don’t remember,” my mother commented. I tried to ignore her face, which was warped with disbelief and confusion.

Instead, I focused my attention on another story Virginia was telling about her father, the doctor who made house calls all around Rockville, Connecticut. He went to the row houses of factory workers and visited a sick woman there. As a way to cheer her, he played a tune on his violin. The sick woman could not pay any money, so she gave him a small candle stick in exchange for the kind service.

“That’s the candle holder on the table.” And there behind me, was a small, forged iron candle stick. The payment from all those years ago, solid evidence of a memory.


Before our return to New Jersey, I took Mom for a chilly walk on Nauset Beach. We remarked how frightening the warning signs about sharks were, as they had become abundant in the warming waters. I held her bony hand as we stepped down from the boardwalk. Slowed by the sand, we must have appeared like a single organism, quietly and steadily linked, moving along the shore amidst the breaking sea foam.

But upon our return, I felt embittered all over again. It was not just the apartment complex that bothered me, it was Mom’s sense of defeat, even before she had dementia. When Mom’s memory was good, people who lived in her building only reminded her of things she lacked. The husband and wife across the way were the absence of couplehood, her own husband having left years before. The single woman next door who used to be the librarian at Montclair State University represented career—my mother did not pursue a teaching career after getting her degree in education back in the sixties.

In my adulthood, I became a teacher and a mother, nothing out of the ordinary. I did not break any glass ceilings. Along the way, I had sought substitutes for my Mom. My mother-in-law was a boon, always so talkative and forthcoming about the people of her past as well as the people she knew now. I sought substitutes in women colleagues who seemed accomplished, unconcerned about appearances, and willing to take risks. I liked to spend time with these people, but mother I only took in small doses. In my move across the country, in seeking other mothers, I felt complicit in the erasure of my own, like the conceit of Mom’s spreading disease.

Yet there was a time when my mother existed for me in her presence of being. A presence that was all around me in the home, and after I moved away, she was a presence that sustained me by phone to listen to any worries I had, or the kindness who fed me and welcomed me at any hour of return.

On the bright morning after our trip, I ventured outside for my first walk of the new year. I took the key fob and made it successfully to the sidewalk. The sight of a working man on a garbage truck filled me with a kind of delight. A human? Working the garbage truck in the year 2020? One man called out “Happy New Year” as he toiled among heaps of holiday trash. When he realized that I was disoriented and had to catch myself walking toward the wrong building (all the units look the same), the trash man mocked me with a little confusion dance and a broad smile.

The residents of the complex, well-off retirees, were either hidden away inside their locked apartments or had flown to Florida for the winter.

As I walked, my eye followed the garbage truck as it trudged uphill, and something in the background suddenly came to the fore. Why hadn’t I noticed it before?

An immense cliff rock stood around the Four Seasons. It occupied the perimeter of the complex, and jutted up to the clouds, with a skirt of metal netting to prevent stones from falling on people’s heads. I could just make out a snarl of trees growing from the top, so menacing and wild, it brought to mind Dr. Frankenstein’s ambition come to life with lightning bolts.

This mighty cliff, it must have survived the excavators and machinery that came, not too long ago, to destroy and then to build the complex amid the rubble. Maybe the construction workers thought it too difficult to bring down, too uncooperative, and so they deemed the effort useless. “Let’s just leave this colossal mess,” they decided.

I remembered the surprise of another wild place nestled in this densely populated area of New Jersey. The Saturday before Christmas, my sister brought me to the South Mountain Reservation, which was a steep mile up through her neighborhood. At the entrance, signs informed the public about the cliff formation west of the Hudson River—the Palisades, something that I had only known as a parkway name. Like the Palisades formation, the mountain had volcanic origins. Forces jutted skyward upon a supercontinent, magma and lava cooled over millions of years to make black basalt. The Lenape people called the great cliffs Weehawken, or “rocks that look like rows of trees.”

There was a terrace within the reservation, 500 feet above sea level, where you could see the Manhattan skyline. I remembered the 9/11 memorial there, where my sister said people crowded together as the towers fell.

At the Four Seasons, too, the cliff stood with its black-rust face, implausible backdrop to a lonely park bench with its little patch of manicured lawn. In the early morning under a stark blue sky, the cliff rock suddenly called out, Attend to me.

While Mom seemed inert in her apartment of stark white walls and granite countertops, I wondered if this cliff was the bedrock of something more inherent to her being. Was it the ancestor of another rock that I knew from family lore, the apartment building in the Bronx, New York, where my mother lived as a child? She was little Rosalie back then, and in that rock her mother, Olga, and father, Sam, came up and down stairs every day. Her younger brother Sal made the noise and the grandparents, aunts and uncles were always there, down the hall, around the corner, in the six-story building near Pelham Bay. That rock was alive with the breadth of family—a proud Italian-American family who shared their stories of building a life here. 

This time spent visiting our mothers made my husband and I feel so old, yet so small. We inevitably became children who could not believe our mothers would soon leave us. The mother with her abundance of memories in a society of her own, and the mother whose only affirmation was in having children who remembered for her. Still, they were the mother ships of our generation, the origins from which our journeys launched into the world.

There is a children’s book called, Are You My Mother?, in which the little bird runs all across the land looking for his mother after she leaves the nest to find food. Are you my mother? he asks the cow. Are you my mother? he asks the dog, and he repeats the question of everyone and everything, even a car and other nonliving objects. He’s out of his mind, howling and crying, when the excavator, of all things, takes pity on the baby bird. The digger twists and lifts it to his nest, where he is reunited with the mother bird in the end, given the prize of a wriggly worm. She never woke him up to tell him she was leaving, I thought.

I want to ask in this moment, oh great cliff, shale and talus, the true captain of the mothership.

Have you known me all along?

Are you my mother?


Photo at the top of the page by Jennifer Moglia Lucil.


We were trying to get a porcupine to fight the wild turkeys.

It started when Chris lobbed a Frisbee over my head and it sailed into the thicket of high grass surrounding the shed. Wading in, I peeled back layers of green overgrowth in search of a round, yellow glimmer of plastic. Instead, sunlight flashed upon the little guy’s spiky head just before he scurried off with instinctual terror to hide under the shed. I called to him in as melodious a voice as I could muster, then whistled some simple nonsense, but to no avail.

It was summer, our annual family vacation in rural New Hampshire, and none of us had much experience taming wild animals and forcing them to do our bidding. Enlisting the help of the Internet, we found step-by-step instructions that were written in such plain and un-ironic language that it read like something out of a fairy tale: Find an oar, preferably an old one that has been frequently used by kayakers. Chop it into tiny splinters. Place the splinters in a small bowl of lightly salted water situated in an open field not far from the porcupine’s den, some time during the early dawn or late-dusk hours of the day. The porcupine will find the bowl strangely tantalizing and will emerge to investigate.

There wasn’t any information on how to actually capture the porcupine, let alone how to train it to fight our enemies. We would have to improvise in that regard.

“Turkeys are such jerks,” Chris said, scrolling through a couple of news stories detailing dangerous turkey-related mishaps that further intensified our commitment to the task at hand.

We didn’t have an oar. None of us kayak, though our sister Erin had spent the afternoon at the boathouse down the road trying to teach mom how to paddle board. So I once more waded into the overgrowth by the shed, this time in search of some branches to snap, then peeled a layer of bark off a skinny maple tree we had used to hang a clothesline. Three towels and mom’s bathing suit hung from it, lilting gracefully in a breeze that had been steadily strengthening for hours. Chris grabbed a white porcelain bowl from the kitchen, and with ceremonial silence, we placed the salty trap in a grass clearing between the shed and the screened-in porch, where we sat in rocking chairs with some bottles of beer and waited.

The thing about porcupines, though, is that they have no inherent hatred for wild turkeys. Maybe their paths had not crossed frequently enough for them to realize that turkeys are such jerks. Or maybe the porcupine is simply a forgiving and compassionate creature, really just a sweet old softy beneath its weaponized quills. That would be strangely comforting, I think – that nature might simultaneously instill in this animal a weapon that can kill and a temperament that forgives implicitly. If that were so, then even if we couldn’t coax it into fighting the turkeys, we could at least be satisfied in knowing that the emotional temperament of the animal kingdom fell roughly into balance.

“What exactly is our beef with turkeys?” Erin asked, struggling to recall why her brothers had selected this for the evening’s family activity.

“Nothing, really,” I answered. “But the pack that came through earlier didn’t seem all that friendly.”

“They ate our blueberries!” Chris added. “Right off the bush, while we sat here and watched like a couple of suckers. They mock us.”

 “And do we actually think the lure will work?” she asked.

I shrugged. It seemed like a good plan to me. The Internet had explained that porcupines love salt. It’s an essential element of their diet, since so much of their daily food intake — the same plants and greens that I had been poking around in earlier — is loaded with potassium. When the balance of potassium and sodium in the porcupine’s blood falls out of whack, it can have very serious consequences for the critter’s muscles and glands, eventually leading to death if things gets bad enough. This is why they love the salty oars of kayakers. After prolonged use, the rower’s sweat seeps into the oar like brine into meat, infusing it with essential nutrients.

“I wouldn’t bet against it,” I assured her. “The Internet knows things.”

“Thus spake Google,” Chris echoed, and we sipped our beers.

Deep down, we all knew, of course, that this was an exercise in the absurd. There would be no vengeance for the pilfered blueberries. We were just passing the time and engaging in a little mad science, as was our right, as reasonably well educated members of our planet’s smartest and most successful species.

But human-like warfare between nonhuman animals is not unheard of. Big bees invade the nests of little bees and tear its residents apart, sometimes so graphically that it would turn the stomach of even the most devoted veterans of horror films. There are tribes of chimpanzees in central Africa that not only launch full-scale assaults on competing tribes, but will, upon victory, cannibalize the children of their dead enemies. Combine that fact with the knowledge that chimpanzees and humans share something like 98% of their genetic code, and it’s hard not to wonder what ghastly sights littered the fields back when primitive humans first came to understand that slaughtering families from the next valley over was a pretty good way to stop them from doing the same to you.

Of course, that was a long time ago. And if a 2% difference in genetic code can account for something as complex as the human mind — and with it, all of our culture and learning and technology, our limitless curiosity — then you have to wonder if DNA is really all it’s cracked up to be. After all, there I was: embedded within a fine summer evening, drinking good beer and using a portable electronic device that commanded robots in outer space to direct, to my precise location, laser beams that contained information on how best to capture wild porcupines using only common household items and a dash of kosher salt. What tremendous luck it would be for this porcupine to be granted audience with creatures so much greater than itself.

So we sat on the porch and tried to wait out the porcupine, but our human minds, as is the wont of that pesky 2%, lost interest in the endeavor when it failed to yield results, and we moved on to other things, like more bottles of beer and slabs of Vermont cheddar with crusty bread.

Dusk came and went, ushered swiftly into the void by the rising moon, which painted the ripples of Lake Sunapee milky white. The orange and red of sunset bled out into a thousand pinpricks of flickering white light that pimpled the rural darkness. I lost sight of the porcelain bowl on the lawn, and the patch of woods that the turkeys called home, and the small blue shed under which lay the nesting porcupine. All we could see from where we were was the face of the moon and its reflection on the lake, against a backdrop of all those stars.

Any thought of animal warfare tactics ceased then, as the moment I had truly been waiting for approached. My family has vacationed for twenty-three years on Lake Sunapee, but I never tire of the incredible force that is a New England thunderstorm in the dead of August. It descends like Zeus from nearby Mount Kearsarge and terrorizes every part of the landscape with icy indifference, leaving in its wake a layer of spent fog and mist that hangs limply above the still water. It’s the totality of the storm that is so captivating. The sheer there-ness of it. How it fills every corner of the sky; how everything around you feels denser, as though invisible weight were being piled atop each molecule; how it seems to tap into some reservoir of energy from beyond the horizon.

As I watched, a barrage of clouds, thick puddles of gray against the black night sky, moved in from the east and stamped out the moon. The trees outside sounded the reports of heavy raindrops, and from the mountains in the distance murmured drum rolls of thunder that echoed against the walls of the porch. The space all around us, though still dark, indeed darker than ever after the snuffing of the moon and stars, nonetheless hummed with an unseen energy, as though echoing the threads of electricity that cackled in the eastern valley.

Nothing compared with all that sound. It was not discordant at all, but strangely smooth and deep, like music heard through a swaddle of thick blanket. This was not the voice of chaos, as the unpredictable crash of a lightning strike might suggest, but of order and structure — the sound of the elements shrugging off their playful tune-up and harmonizing around a note too alien to capture with human instruments. The best our brains could make of it was forked whispers of light and sonic crescendos.

But maybe there was a little something more. Something impressed only faintly upon the mind, but which nonetheless remained long after the storm’s energy was spent. Some other thing, its power strangely scored, which set our thoughts to wandering, even as we sat motionless under the safety of the porch’s roof, faces damp with humid summer air.

In that place of anxious anticipation, I observed the opening movements of the storm across Lake Sunapee. For years I’ve had a peculiar intuition, a vague shadow in my mind’s eye, that I will someday be struck by lightning during such a storm, so my enjoyment of the spectacle is often lined with barely-contained hysteria. Months earlier, after a near-miss while driving home in stormy weather, I had laid heavy on my horn and howled like a beast from the tiny slit of my driver-side window while an ocean of rain blurred the night outside. I was a moving target rolling down the highway at fifty-five miles an hour, and yet that bolt had struck the ground less than 10 yards away, and had terrified me in a way I couldn’t fully come to terms with in the moment.

But such fear, I tell myself now, is itself just another shadow, the shadow of awe, a cosmic equivalent to that vibration you feel in the back corners of your teeth when two far-away notes fall perfectly into unison.

It’s hard to know what to make of fear like that — the kind so oppressively real that it seems to exist within our very bones, but which we nonetheless fail to truly understand, instead recognizing only its silhouette within each flash of lightning that pierces the summer sky, and in every shape we trace, with childlike wonder, across the face of the stars. To give in to that fear might drive us mad. But to ignore it completely would be to lose our ear for music that is as old and beguiling as August thunder.

The wind must have shifted while we watched, because the murmurs from the east never grew into roars; few bolts of lightning revealed themselves, and soon all those pinpricks of light were emerging again from behind the veil of receding clouds. I sat there beneath the shelter of the porch a while longer after Chris and Erin had gone to bed, sweat all down my back. But I found nothing, save for the impossible distance of the stars, the hazy black of midnight, the summer moon’s unrelenting silence.

Photo at the top of the page by Needsmoreritalin.

Hopkins Pond

Memory plays with our present self, teasing us with the possibility of its mutability; if we remember differently, we may become somebody else, if not in body, in essence. I have many memories I play with, imagine differently, reshape and wrestle, and many I could not mutate if I tried. Perhaps that is the required state of mind, leaving some wiggle room, if only imaginary, and at once confirming the past that is embedded. We exist, can float even, somewhere in between. Amy Scanlan O’Hearn

There is one such memory I have of a conversation with my mother, one that I revisit with intense emotional clarity and physicality. In no way can I alter it. But my life may be entirely different today if I had taken heed of the advice she gave in those moments; if I had taken action. We are in the car, one of several hundred times we rode together—to the store, clothes-shopping, to church, to the doctor or dentist. I have no idea of the destination, only of a rare time alone with her; a fifth child of seven, it was my turn. It was my senior year of high school, and she asked me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to be; I was a directionless teen; each day held the view of a vague uncertain future. I remember turning to my mother and saying I don’t know—I don’t know what I want to do, but I don’t want a nine-to-five job, having little idea of what that even was. Without missing a beat, my mother replied, “Well, then, get out to the woods now.” 

I long for a field outside my door, frogs in the grass, a feral cat in the barn, and a stream close by. I have had none of those. Aside from eleven years in the country, if that’s valid nomenclature for a split-level on a gravel road with woods at the back and a farm on both sides, where my six siblings and I roamed freely and wreaked havoc in cornfields and on properties not our own—considered by the locals as foreign, destructive, and wild children, not the stock from which they came. Since then, I have languished between the pull of the bucolic in suburbia, a limbo-land, a state of mind as much as a logistical disappointment. My father moved us to suburbia at the height of his career, and I have followed a path, married, and experienced motherhood and of late, middle age, in its realm. When my husband and I set out to move to Philadelphia twenty-five years ago, we spent a few days traipsing in and out of dark, cramped apartments until we settled on one with a second bedroom, or a space that had been walled off and called a second bedroom, which featured a window and a tree outside. A month’s rent would eat up most of our earnings, but I had figured out how to cook on five dollars a day, so we were excited about a life in the city. The day before we were to sign the lease, I checked out an apartment in a small town near my mother, a train ride from my husband’s office; it was the first floor of an old Victorian with two very real bedrooms, a front porch, and a tire swing. Twenty-five years later, my suburban state of mind has come to fully appreciate the tree-lined streets of my small neighborhood, tucked just off a major interstate, and I partake of the urban experience by hopping on the train when I feel like I need its pulse.

A converse pull of the city began with my father, who believed that an individual has only really lived if he has spent time in NY, and his NY years were the stuff of legend: faded match packs, torn black and white photos from The Copacabana, and tales from behind the bar at theStork Club. We got our dose of the city once a year when he hauled us, in a Chevy wagon, nine hours away from Western Pennsylvania; there, we tumbled into tiny adjoining rooms in some hotel or other near Central Park. “Have fun,” he’d say, handing us each a twenty, and we hit the streets, picking up cheap fashions and souvenirs, spotted and stalked celebrities, entered Central Park and exited it exhausted and lost many blocks later. We found our way back to the hotel, dirty and hungry. Chinese or pizza was ordered; on Home Box Office, we watched R movies my older sister ordered, in a gravelly voice, from the front desk. I watched Shampoo at thirteen and a year later, Taxi Driver, both frightening and enticing. But I didn’t really get the city. Its enormity, the unending blocks of concrete. Even the relatively unmanicured rambles of Central Park failed to satisfy. I never forgot the woods or let them disappear from my internal horizon, and I realize now that I am fortunate to have lived the past thirty-five years within a five-mile parameter of Hopkins Pond.

I have been walking the paths that circle the two ponds since I was fifteen, taking various routes into the park that surrounds them, depending on the hour, the day, or the year. At Hopkins Pond, I have experienced beginnings, come to several ends, and suffered all the strifes and highs in between. But no matter what phase of life, I take something away every time I go there. I pick up leaves, gather bouquets of weeds, and pocket acorns, stones, and shells. And if what I carry away isn’t clutched in my palm, I leave with something else, ions maybe, but much different than the ones radiating from the granite sidewalks or rock ledges of a city park.

The park at Hopkins Pond has no rock ledges, and the earth is the Jersey soil that erodes nearly before one’s eyes. I have seen birch and oak and beech rise and topple from the ponds’ banks onto their massive sides and disintegrate over time. With the sand and soil, the ridges are never too regular, and the paths are never too predictable, meandering regularly from their well-worn ways. Even in its shifted-ness, Hopkins Pond has been a constant in my life. My footprints around its course are filled with instants from a past I cannot escape.

I don’t ever recall saying I have to live near Hopkins Pond, but that’s the way it has been. My trips to the park and circuits around the pond have become a habit or tendency, a part of my life I would miss if I were to go without. I’m not a devotee of much, but I’m holding onto the woods, and there they are, so I go.

At the ponds’ north side, the path follows the frontage of the Birdwood estate. I guess that I have passed there several hundred, perhaps a thousand, times. A dignified estate with coppices and a slate roof, a low picket fence and icehouse-turned-artist studio, it sits angled and snug on the property’s rim. I have never seen a soul enter or leave the place; its occupants forever in residence. Once, I watched a gardener load a truck of fallen limbs.

In a marl pit at the far reaches of the estate, the first nearly intact dinosaur skeleton was discovered in the late 1800s. A Quaker family who had built the house was using a remarkably large bone as an umbrella stand, noticed by a visiting friend who also happened to be a paleontologist. With permission, he excavated an abandoned marl pit on the property and within months, the first standing dinosaur exhibit was on display at the Philadelphia Academy of the Natural Sciences, and the frenzy to unearth dinosaurs in marl pits all over the state of New Jersey was underway. While my appreciation for New Jersey is elevated by the discovery (almost as sexy as living in France near the Lascaux cave), my imagination is more so drawn to the excavated marl pit than to Hadrosaurus foulkii, or Foulk’s ‘bulky lizard,’ unearthed there. I read an article in The New York Times, from the late 1800s, of two boys gone missing one December and then found days later in an abandoned marl pit. I had no idea at the time what a marl pit was. I envisioned its depths murky and dark, its slippery slides without hold. The boys had lost their way, then lost their footing and fallen in. They died clasping one another. The reporter described them arm in arm, their “curly locks laid out behind them in the muck.”

On the ponds’ western rim once stood the Birdwood property mill. Above the smaller pond, a 22-foot fall mill generated the power that ground grain to grist and turned trees to lumber for the early residents of the area. I’ve seen pictures at the local Historical Society of the stone remains in varying stages of decay. Off the path, stones are strewn here and there. Vines encrust most, and I have lifted them to find salamanders impossibly alive and breathing in the jet-black mud underneath. Once I ventured off the path into the swampy stretch of land below the two ponds to find broken bottles and plates, rusted tin, and tubeless tires. From the scraps, I fabricate in my imagination the stuff of the daily lives of the mill workers and residents of Birdwood. I wonder about their joys and disappointments, about their illnesses and struggles, and with what ease they tossed their discards off the side of a hill.

If I walk to the ponds from the house where I live now and enter from the boulevard that runs along its southern edge, I approach the lower pond by a path that bends through scrub trees and raspberry brambles. I never take this path without startling the kingfisher. His squawk belies his timidity. So do his rapid movements as he darts from fallen limb to low-hanging branch, skimming the water’s surface fast and furious. I wonder if he knows I am there, or if I have overestimated his acknowledgement. Along this same overgrown stretch, I have spotted an owl on the skeletal remains of a tree. I have never seen another. Here, I encounter the egret and the night heron, a hunkered bird with a plumage that droops just above the water. Both birds study the movement of carp and perch under the slow and silt-bedded stream. The kingfisher squawks and the egret flies. Rarely does he tolerate my approach. I was as startled when we met once on a wintery path, the quiet of the snow and the barrenness of the landscape fooling us into solitude. That same day, I flushed a flock of mourning doves when the park’s joggers and walkers were few, and the birds had taken full reign. We met in separate occupations, theirs a secret society, and I lost in thought.

Some days when I am looking to walk farther, I cross a bridge and follow paths that run at the base of the Bancroft property on the eastern side of the park. Invariably, I recall my teen self, when I spent almost every afternoon in the park after school. In summer, spring, winter, no matter the weather, I huddled with friends, passing apricot brandy or a rolled joint; we were warm against each other, and isolated. I picture us on tree stumps or fallen logs, around small fires if we dared, laughing, telling the same stories again and again. The tips of our cigarettes illuminate faces and behind us, the darkness is impenetrable. I wonder how we withstood hours in the cold, only conscious of not being caught and if we were pursued, then running like gazelles though uncharted paths we knew in the dark. Once we were pursued by the police with flashlights. I twisted myself into a trunk, hugged the bush, and willed myself to be one with it. It worked. The voices and the flashlights faded and after the pounding in my ears quieted, I made my way to my friends, knowing where they’d be waiting for me to share the details of the chase.

More often, I go to Hopkins Pond alone, except for Bingo. But with Bingo I may as well be alone. We walk in tandem, her steps regular, timed as she traces the course; mine in rhythm, too, as I compose words in my head that may evaporate or stick when I return home. Bingo’s pursuits are intense, her scent of fellow canines urgent, of chipmunk, rodent, and fowl deliberate. There have been several times she turned to me with some small creature in the clutches of her jaw. I scold her and she drops her prey, disappointed for an instant but well prepared to begin again.

Another treasured companion to Hopkins Pond has been my son, who, like an ichthyic descendant, was immediately drawn to the shallows of the waters, and he crouched there, angled, and scooped minnow’s eggs and trout. His optimism at catching something never waned, even in winter when he cracked the ice’s rippled ridges and tempted fate on a pond’s surface to see the carp he knew were lurking underneath. A favorite spot of his was on the gnarled branches of a cedar that formed a web above the pond’s surface. He straddled there and lowered bits of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to a massive snapper while I sat nearby, watching closely and fearing the thing might take him whole if his hand got too close. On the concrete bridge that spans a stream from the lower pond, my son and I have danced barefoot around slippery eels pulled from the brackish water. The same sludge-like mess into which he kicked a treasured tackle box and sneaker while we hopped around the slithering black bodies at our feet. Even into his late teens, I could coax him to the pond, to the surprise of the kingfisher’s screech and the egret’s ancient crouch. When he visits now from NY, a walk to Hopkins Pond is a worthwhile endeavor. He has also felt the charge.

As I mount the hill at Birdwood, I am careful to watch the gravel beneath me, cautious of new rivulets or of crevices in the path as it ascends and brings me into view of the upper pond at the path’s rise. Emergency lights blare, and I stiffen. Out on the ice, orange tape flaps and waves between cones. Young men in yellow frog suits carry a pole that resembles an elephant prod. They move slowly toward the middle. It is cold. Blocks of broken ice lay scattered, tipped sideways and piled askew next to a large hole in the pond’s center. I can see the thickness of the ice—a good six inches—and wonder the last time the pond was so deeply frozen. My heart sinks as I imagine the probable scenario—young boys, skating, engaging in horseplay; someone has fallen through. But as instantly, the fear dissolves and I look again at the young men in their rescue gear, like moonwalkers, head to toe in bright spandex, belted at their waist, helmeted and surreal, creatures from under the sea. They glide across the ice with boyish grins, and I am suddenly relieved—a drill, a simulated rescue operation. As the young ‘rescuers’ frolic out to the ‘danger site,’ their counterparts—potbellied and wizened old guys on the shore—huddle by the truck. There is no imminent danger, only in the extreme cold a tragic possibility to be avoided if they practice and prepare. I am relieved that my pond is not tainted, and that the worst I will associate with it are my own transgressions, where I spent and maybe wasted some hours of my adolescence, skipped school and partied, where I stashed marijuana in a fallen tree. I once saw a man jerking off in the brush, and on the rise at the upper pond’s far northern edge, in my boyfriend’s truck, I ‘lost my virginity.’ Everything short of death.


Photo at the top of the page is of a scene at Hopkins Pond and was taken by Amy Scanlan O’Hearn.