I remember it clearly.
Even if it was kid brain looking back. There are a few moments in my life that are so clear that you’d have to fight me to make me believe otherwise. This is how and when they actually happened.
I loved drinking buttermilk, it was awesome. My grandma would buy this cool buttermilk with a picture of a brown jersey cow on the quart. It was a tall rectangle cardboard carton with hints of yellow on it and black letters. She would remind me as I poured myself a glass as a wee one that there were four quarts to a gallon. She was always teaching me, always. That buttermilk had little yellow flecks of butter in it that I would strain to the edge of the glass as I sipped through my gapped teeth. They were gapped wide enough to roll a nickel in-between them until my wisdom teeth came in. I loved butter even then. I loved buttermilk. I was convinced it would make me pretty when I grew up.
I remember going to the refrigerator in our apartment that was shades of brown and olive green in the greatest 70’s style fail. I was hungry and thirsty so I drank a bunch of buttermilk from the carton. This buttermilk didn’t have the magic yellow flakes. The carton didn’t have the picture of that brown cow. It didn’t quite taste nearly as good as the magic in a glass at Grandma’s house. Yet, somehow it tasted almost right to me, save the butter rimmed glass. I didn’t really notice at the time drinking from the carton like a bad kid. It was just soured milk. That soured milk didn’t set well with my belly. I don’t drink buttermilk anymore. Besides, I haven’t seen the same quart or cow since. Lesson learned.
I remember that later that day I tried to rescue a wizard.
Praying mantises are just reincarnated wizards. Yes, yes they are. They are from a far away land of Eastern Magi who can weave spells. The problem is that now they can’t form the words and their tiny hands are missing fingers and are too small so they can only weave small magics that we can’t really see. That’s what she told me so that’s what I believed. They pray. They are special and somehow regal and should always be protected. Not like killing a roach, borderline legit phobia thank you. Those can all burn. If only they would burn, those indestructible nuclear war surviving mother fuckers.
But a mantis? They are magic.
I saw it through the sliding glass doors, a mantis was being attacked by a bee. I remember hearing stories about him having bee hives. Why did he have bee hives? But then I refocused as best my kid brain could on this praying mantis, my magic green friend in the courtyard ( not a real backyard but more than a patio) being climbed on and stung by a bee. I knew that I had to rescue the wizard mantis. I think I truly believed that like a Genie (I miss you Robin Williams) that if I rescued him, he would be able to somehow grant a wish or cast a spell. I had a lot of people I could think of that deserved a wish back then. Still do.
I went to rescue him. I knew that it was likely I would get stung by the bee, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I pushed the bee off with a tiny little twig so as not to hurt either of them. Really, even as a wee itty bitty non -reading little one, who drank soured milk on accident, I knew that bees made flowers and that flowers made people smile. So we need bees. I saved that bee from what I thought should have been imminent death from that magical insect. I knew what to do next. I had to pick him up, gently to move him into a plant or a tree or whatever green place made sense for him to hide. He was the size of my whole wee hand, the biggest mantis I’ve ever seen. ( ok, fine probably a fish story) but I had to save him, he was awesome.
As I reached down and placed my palm in front of him, with calm, kindness and pride in my heart, I was sure he was grateful. I was sure he felt rescued. I was wrong.
He bit me.
He bit me and it shocked me. He wasn’t supposed to do that, I had just done a favor for another creature and wasn’t repaid with kindness in any way. I was repaid with my own dripping blood. He drew blood from my finger. Yeah, I bet you didn’t know a praying mantis would: a) bite or b) draw blood. But it’s true. The mythology lover in me wants to think that the bite from the praying mantis that I rescued has given me super powers akin to Spidey getting bit, but if I was given anything it was the first stitch in my crazy flag because seriously, who goes around believing that an insect is a wizard other than crazy people.
In my head, the blood dripping out of my finger and the buttermilk incident were on the same day. Two parts of me broke that day. The day I learned that sometimes what you think you see isn’t what you get. No jersey brown cow on that quart…don’t drink it Alice.
That same day, as far as I am concerned, I also learned that sometimes kindness isn’t matched with kindness. The magic mantis bit me instead of granting me a wish. Those two events kinda broke my little kid brain. At that point I somehow knew to double check a book’s cover, realizing that just because you think it is exactly the same doesn’t mean it is. I also understood the importance of acting with kindness but to not necessarily expect the kindness to be met in return. Maybe he was afraid, maybe he was wounded. Be careful helping things that are wounded, they act irrationally. Things are not always what they seem and sometimes you do the right thing and it hurts. Broken baby brain. Shit.
I can recount moments where I have felt my brain break. Where my schema for the world had to be rebuilt to meet the seemingly chaotic environment. I remember most of them. Some of them were moments of beauty, but not most. I remember Sabrina. I remember breaking a bit that day. I remember the first time someone made a rude comment about my tattoos because I thought everyone thinks they are beautiful art. I remember being told girls couldn’t do archery and being really confused. I remember the first time I heard I was beautiful and actually believed them. I also remember the time a coworker handed me twenty bucks and said make sure I get something to eat for a couple of days. These moments broke my brain in one way or another. Though simple gestures, they had a profound effect on how I now had to see the world. These are moments that break the brain and force you to understand that there is cruelty and beauty all around us all at the same time. However, I’m not sure those moments impacted the other people as much as they did me. I’m not sure they could see the breaking.
What is gut wrenching and heart breaking about being someone who has at times a seemingly super hero, sci-fi, unnatural connection to people, that empathy that interferes with daily life, is when you see someone else break. Fragility and humanity in it’s rawest form. It is not like when you meet the person that you somehow know is just a little bit broken. The distant eyes of the combat vet with that thousand yard stare, or the refugee kid who saw some shit and wears sadness over their shoulders. Not the homeless guy who yells out at you or the student who draws the same symbol over and over and over again reminding you that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. It’s not the same when you meet those who are already a bit broken.
Sometimes it is different. When you are there, the moment it happens. The moment you see a bit of light and life leave the soul and you become powerlessly religious, praying and begging for that light to return, or at least for it to not go too far. The moment of breaking that you witness. When the Universe shares with you the actual moment they become…broken. That moment.
I remember the first time I saw someone break. You never forget your first. It was surreal. It is a permanent memory. For both of us.
The tan, brown, almond, or maybe today you would call it biscuit, colored phone hanging on the wall back before cordless phones. In a time when you would sit and twirl that twisty phone cord in your hands over and over like a nervous habit even though you didn’t smoke cigarettes…yet. There was no privacy on those phones. The best you could hope for was to make it to the hallway and talk quietly, or sit at the kitchen table. If you were chatting with a boyfriend or having a fight on the phone I imagine that the whole fam got to hear part of it at least. I think that would be a good thing. I don’t think a fam should really have too many secrets. I kinda wish our phones had cords these days, maybe we’d all feel a bit more connected.
The ugly, dirty fingerprinted phone hung on the edge of the wall. It was just as wide as the wall really. One of those strange divider walls from home design of years back trying to give the illusion of more space. Even as tall as I was I had to get on my toes to grab it, or maybe a chair. I stopped answering the phone for a while and don’t remember reaching for that ugly phone again. I didn’t answer the phone for years.
Her hair wasn’t very long then, I think she stopped cutting it after the call. But it was deep toasted brown, almost amber with a natural wave. She was thin as a rail really. Even by today’s standards. Almost exotic. My skin didn’t look like hers. I was a little white girl and she had beautiful olive skin. ( I know to call it that now.) I wonder now if she was eating enough. I could see the sliding glass door to the patio courtyard, the backyard equivalent for an apartment, the gateway to where my mantis magi bit me. The floor, linoleum and never mopped. I wish I could remember the pattern. I don’t exactly remember the table, but I think it was glass top hand me down from somewhere, or something he had found for her to help her finish the apartment. He took care of her. He made sure we were ok.
The ugly phone rang. That in and of itself was slightly odd as I don’t remember it ringing much.
I remember her standing there with a hand on that dumb wall. I remember her not saying anything other than… “ok”. I remember staring at her there with the kitchen stove in the background ( it was electric) , the refrigerator and sliding glass door and the combination of the buttermilk mantis incident. My stomach hurt.
I remember watching her transform. Her skin started to look like mine. It wasn’t beautiful tan, olive, skin. It was fading. The color draining from the tip of her envious widows peak down her nose, what should have been laugh lines cemented as the words overcame her and sank in. They were the heaviest words. I saw her shoulders and chest collapse into themselves, but only for a moment. I saw the color and usual joy surrounding her go black, shrouded in shadow. I saw a moment, the moment of force. A supernova of grief. The world collapsing into itself before it can no longer contain the energy. I saw the silent explosion. I saw the pieces shatter with unequaled force. I’m sorry.
I believe it was that force, the raw energy of devastating grief, that allowed her to pull the ugly phone off the wall. Rip it from its holdings and the brackets that had held it steady. ( I understand now it was him who for all of the years had held you steady). That ugly phone came off the wall and flew with a force that you, the tiny beautiful woman should not have held. The world became a pane of splintered broken glass bits. That ugly fucking phone flew threw the sliding glass portal to the mantis and shattered all of it. The world was now, broken.
I don’t remember too much of him. I was only around 4.
I remember his boots. Cliche waffle stompers with red laces that might as well have been size a million. He was huge. I only came to his knee, and I was no short kid. I gave his jacket to my son. I have a picture of him wearing it in Sqaw Valley, one of the only pictures of him I ever saw. It was his red skiing jacket. Now that jacket, it’s more of a burnt orange and qualifies as a hipster puffy. My son can wear it snowboarding if he wants to.
I’ve been told he used to fill a bota bag with Wild Turkey 101. I heard he played the baritone sax and supposedly stole one once. (Music is f’n important in our genes) Grandma told me he was dyslexic and never really figured out how to read too well. She really didn’t talk about him much. I know he was at least six feet four, probably wore boots to give him an extra few inches. I know now, that my dad liked him. Anyone who said anything about him had something nice to say. I think he probably would’ve been my anchor too, held me steady to weather any storm. My hero in the flesh. The guy who would’ve been my goofy guide. The first time I was on an airplane I talked to him in the clouds. I like to imagine that he would still encourage shenanigans and then be there to help me pick up the pieces or post my bail. I think we would’ve been besties. But I didn’t get to find out.
Driving home from KU a forever long yet just a few years ago, I called my Grandma. I talked to her every day. She knew I had just dropped off Manchild to college and was driving back. I was alone. Pops had decided this was one I needed to myself. (No it doesn’t make sense to anyone else but it absolutely worked for our fam) I had to do this one alone, this was my Manchild. ( And to be honest I’m not sure either of my guys were ready) I was crying the silent tears of mom pride, not grief. I was surrounded by windmills that always fascinate me like Don Quixote chasing dreams. I called her and said I miss him already. She said I know how that hurts. I know what it means to miss your boy.
Gut. Fucking. Check.
I have never, ever (and hope never again) to have been more humbled and put. in. my. place. I should never complain about anything ever again.
The day the ugly phone went through my glass mantis gateway with an unmatched force, I was a wee one. That day was the day my mom heard the news that her brother had been killed. I watched her soul break. I saw it. I saw a light leave her and the one left behind was so dark. I prayed that day, in that moment, in a way I still don’t understand to a God I still don’t quite know, that it wouldn’t be forever. But it was a long time.
I saw. I witnessed. I felt the breaking of the human soul. I was a wee one, but I knew. I totally understood. Between the buttermilk, the mantis and the window, I knew. I in my head believe it was the same day. The world just didn’t make sense, all of the things were broken.
It took a long set of years before a light returned to my mom. My epic grandma, I think remained forever dimmed. She’s stronger than me, I would snuff out completely.
But even at the time, in that shattering moment, I broke too. Because I understood what it means to be broken in a way that we should never know.
Adult me knows he was accidentally electrocuted on a job site. Mom says she thinks they killed him. I would want to place blame too. Adult me is still afraid to pull toast out of a toaster with a fork, and bike school was brutal at times. I didn’t realize I would react so poorly to being shocked, knowing it couldn’t do much. But, he was electrocuted. He died. My mom’s baby brother who was her anchor, and my Grandmother’s only son died. I really can’t understand. Thank the gods, God and the Universe and whoever else wants to hear me on that one. I am so grateful I don’t get it. He was a bit younger than my own Manchild now. Fuck. I am put in my place yet again. I should never complain.
We were all a bit broken after he died.
Kid brain wants the Fourth of July, his funeral, the death of Kush the dog stung to death by bees, the death of my Grandpa’s mom Daisy and my epic Grandma losing her leg to cancer to all be on the same day. Now, I know they are not the same day because for that I asked for kid brain clarification. It was over a period of weeks that all that shit happened. But in my head they are the same day because maybe, just maybe kid brain wants to condense awful bullshit into the same day because it is easier to make just one day the worst day ever. Nobody needs that many bad days stacking up, just hurry up and make it the worst day ever and not drag it out. Broken.
But The Fourth was my Grandpa’s Holiday. Maybe it became his after this particular one. Maybe he forced himself to remember that life goes on even if we aren’t ready for it to. But I always remember fireworks and food and a few kegs. Yep, a few. My Grandpa was the OG block partier. Every guest got a pistol peete lit for them off the table when they arrived. In the fall that table once a giant spool for something, would hold the persimmons and the pomegranates from the garden. But those pistol peetes… I got to light them even when I was that little. There was tomato aspic salad with baby shrimp that Grandma made. Google that shit.
I remember this 4th of July being a funeral and still full of love. He died on the 29th so I suppose it is possible that this 4th was a funeral or a wake. Either way, I believe my Grandpa loved that day so I equate the Fourth to sending his son off right. He sent him off not only with his love, but with a show. A sparkly celebration and the loud noises to scare away the demons that I know were the shadows I saw surrounding him too. I wish he had shared more, so I could’ve helped in some…some small way other than being a tomboy. I think that was the best I could do.
Years moved on. Slowly the light started to return, pieces mended and started to shine again.
The Universe is more patient than we are when it comes to learning a lesson, and in a moment decades on decades on decades later, feeling broken and shattered myself I found Kintusugi googling the word broken. It’s a thing, an art. It makes sense when you know what it means to be broken. It’s a gift to understand. I finally understood.
Kintusugi. A Japanese art form. An artist takes fine pottery that has been broken, but then rebuilds the piece. The piece is not just masterfully glued back together so that the breaks never show, the cracks are filled with liquid gold or other precious metal. The pieces are filled in with recognizable blatant beauty, liquid precious replacing the voids that broke us. There is beauty in the broken, especially when it has been repaired and survived. The kintusugi artist melts and fills with care every crack with an eye for beauty to enhance it. Whole again, yet highlighting the unique wounds. Once seemingly ruined, those wounds are now the most beautiful and valuable parts of us all. Our broken elements are now the most beautiful. Ahh yes the nerd in me loves that those of us who are broken and healed are..shiny.
I have watched liquid gold fill the cracks over the years with a few chips remaining in those that I love. Those chips give character to the gleaming wounds. I don’t understand that loss, or how to help fill it. I can only imagine because hearing my kick ass Grandma’s voice say I know what it’s like to miss your boy, those words made a crack in me, a stress fracture that I pray never has to be filled.
Broken. Slowly becoming whole Again.
Even more magical than finally understanding the beauty of the broken, is that I have witnessed the return to the world, the proud display of the once broken. So I know that my moments that have broken me are…temporary and honorable and will be beautiful.
Unadulterated purest of heart compassion, and a moment or two of witness have made me realize that there are moments that truly break us. All of us. I know that we are all actually broken in some way. But, if we allow ourselves to heal, (or for others to heal us) the beauty is unique. The beauty is our stunning imperfection of which we can be proud of. Fill the cracks with liquid joy. Allow the light back in. Trace the cracks with care and kindness and allow the broken to become your strength. How lucky we are to survive our wounds, to transform into beauty once broken.
Sometimes when we are lucky, our scars grab the light and reflect it back to illuminate those around us.