Authors: Kelly Corrigan
My mother recently found a snapshot of Aaron and asked Kathy if she should send the photo down to Charlottesville. “I have enough photos of him,” Kathy said. “You keep it. Put it on your bulletin board and when someone asks who he is, tell them about Aaron, everything you know. Tell them he loved taking things apart to see how they worked and that, if the weather allowed, he pretty much had to be outside. Tell them that he was a joker and an optimist and a ponderer of great and small things. Tell them that he loved horseshoes, paint guns and slingshots, Donut Sticks, Steak-umms, four-wheeling and camping and Led Zeppelin. Tell them if he loved you, you’d never forget how good it felt.”
This book is for Kathy, in memory of her son, Aaron Corrigan Zentgraf, a boy you would’ve been lucky to know. Love you, Kath.
Kathy Corrigan Zentgraf
ALL THINGS WANT TO FLY.
—R. M. Rilke
Dear Georgia and Claire,
You’re both in bed now. Dad, too. I should be sleeping but I’m wound up.
First day of school’s tomorrow. Bus comes at 7:44 and won’t drop you off until after three. We don’t usually get downstairs before nine. But tonight, shoes are by the front door and backpacks are zipped. You even laid out your clothes, so we don’t have to argue in the morning.
I don’t think you’ll remember tomorrow, or many of the other days we’ve spent together so far. I only know a handful of stories from before middle school. There was the kiss by the coats in the spring of fifth grade that I pretended was gross.
And the time my teacher, who was tall but wore purple heels anyway, asked if anyone knew how to spell
and I wanted to raise my hand so badly and be the one who knew something no one else in my class knew but I couldn’t because I didn’t know. I feel that way still, like I wish I knew more, like I wish I had answers.
And I remember in third grade, I pulled a tiny foil star off Julia Burr’s row and put it on mine, so I’d have more. I got caught and was taken to see the principal, who had very short hair that looked burnt on the ends. When she started in on me, Mrs. Ford, my teacher, held out her hand and guided me into her lap. I put part of her long necklace in my mouth—I was very nervous—and she gently took it out so I could concentrate on the principal’s thoughts about truthfulness. You guys love that story.
You’re always asking me to tell you about making mistakes or getting grounded. Like when I was ten and I tried to get a bug off my dad’s wind-shield by kicking it, over and over, from the inside, until the glass cracked from top to bottom and side to side. Greenie came back to the car after paying for gas, sliding his billfold into his back pocket, and said, “Lovey! What the—?” We drove home in silence, Greenie shaking his head like he’d never met a kid with less sense. Those stories are as clear as stains compared to the everyday stuff like eating ice cream or playing Go Fish or swimming with my mom in Squam Lake, which I’ve seen a picture of but can’t actually call up inside me. I can’t feel the water, or my mom’s shoulders under my hands, or her neck under my chin, I can’t remember how safe and good it must have felt to ride around on her like that.
I heard once that the average person barely knows ten stories from childhood and those are based more on photographs and retellings than memory. So even with all the videos we take, the two boxes of snapshots under my desk, and the 1,276 photos in folders on the computer, you’ll be lucky to end up with a dozen stories. You won’t remember how it started with us, the things that I know about you that you don’t even know about yourselves. We won’t come back here.
You’ll remember middle school and high school, but you’ll have changed by then. You changing will make me change. That means you won’t ever know me as I am right now—the mother I am tonight and tomorrow, the mother I’ve been for the last eight years, every bath and book and birthday party, gone. It won’t hit you that you’re missing
this chapter of our story until you see me push your child on a swing or untangle his jump rope or wave a bee away from his head and think,
Is this what she was like with me?
The last time we went to Philly to see your grandparents, Jammy taught you how to play dominos while I checked my e-mail. I listened as she explained the rules in stages, showing you all the ways to score until she was sure you understood. When you bagged your first point, she helped you move your peg up the board, winking and clicking her tongue and saying jokey stuff like
By Georgia, I think you’ve got it
When I was little, I don’t think she winked or clicked or punned.
And my coming-of-age? Imagine one long string of cursing, crying, and lying followed by stomping and slamming, punctuated by the occasional kindness—
These eggs are good
Is your knee
Jammy must’ve cut those moments into tiny pieces and rationed them to herself; for all she knew, it’d be a month until I fed her another morsel of affection.
I don’t know when you’ll read this. Maybe when you’re a teenager? No, probably later, when you’re on the verge of parenthood and it occurs to you for the first time that someone has been loving you for that long. Maybe (let’s hope not) you’ll read it because something’s happened to one of us—my cancer came back or Dad was reading a text going across the Bay Bridge and cars collided—and you want to piece together what it was like
. No matter when and why this comes to your hands, I want to put down on paper how things started with us.
I always wanted kids—more than all other things. Not very Harvard Business School of me, I know.
There are other things I want to do, big crazy things, like make a movie and build an artists’ compound and fix my printer. But at night, in the years before I met your dad, when I was talking to a God I wasn’t sure I really believed in, I whittled down all my requests to one: children. You.
Greenie has this huge family and I love being inside something that big. I love the noise and hugging and high-fiving and how we tell the same ten stories every time we’re together and, after that, we tell the same six jokes, all of which have titles, like “Precious” and “Probably” and “The Sportcoat Joke,” which Uncle Dickie delivers with a Scottish accent and a harelip for no reason anyone can give. I remember once in college climbing on-stage with a band. The music was so loud. The bass line came up through the floor into my body. That’s what it’s like being in a room full of Corrigans.
Kathy is my favorite. She’s one of Uncle
Gene’s seven kids, which I think explains her self-reliance and therapist’s eye for interpersonal drama. I like her because she’s so totally unguarded. I’ve always wanted to be like Kathy, and over the years, I’ve tried on various parts of her: I mimic her one-sentence e-mails in all lowercase letters, I listen to John Prine and early Bonnie Raitt. I clutter my bookshelves with unframed photographs, old lunch boxes, and homemade art. She’s why I cut my hair short every couple of years and wear bandanas when it’s too hot to turn on a blow-dryer. I read the books she sends me and the poets she mentions. She introduced me to Rilke, who has this line about how some harmonies can only come from shrieking, and another about how when crystal shatters, it also rings. The Rilke line that’s up on my bulletin board is “the knowledge of impermanence that haunts our days is their very fragrance.” So many
true and delicate thoughts that prose can’t touch. Promise me you’ll read him.
Kathy took a job teaching high school English because she loves reading and talking about books, especially the things people accidentally reveal by empathizing with one character over another or hating a story too much or crying over a certain passage. But more than reading, she loves her students—the pregnant girls, the sassy girls that call her Mizzes, the boys who look at her chest too long. I sat in on her class once at Charlottesville High and left thinking,
I remember this one Corrigan wedding—Cousin Boo’s. Kathy and I were sitting by the dance floor, picking at an unclaimed piece of cake, the way you do when you’ve already had enough and think you might just have one more bite and then the other person joins in and then you’re sweeping up the last of the icing with the backs of your forks.
Her kids, all three of them, were on the dance floor together. I guess they were in middle school, or just starting high school. Lena was doing this move where you pull one foot behind you like you’re stretching your thigh after a run, and Maggie was trying to moonwalk, and Aaron, the oldest, was doing the sprinkler.
“That’s all I want, Kath. Right there. Funny kids who like each other.”
She leaned into me and said, “It’ll come. You’ll get it. Oh! Look—”
Just then, Aaron and some other guys lifted Kathy’s husband, Tony, over their heads, and Tony crowd-surfed, like Jack Black in the last scene of
The School of Rock
. People went nuts—cheering or reaching for their cameras or looking around for the father of the bride to see how this was going over with him. Over all the laughing and hollering,
I could hear Aaron’s voice. “Stay stiff, Dad! Like Superman!”
Dad and I were still opening wedding presents when I started to think about getting pregnant. I’d watched so many friends struggle—Tracy’s seven in vitros, Mary Ann’s three miscarriages, Kristi’s baby born still. Dad and I were lucky, if
is a big enough word for it. Another way of putting it is that we were spared years of torment. Here’s a third way of saying it: I’ve had cancer twice and if I had to pick one fate for you, cancer or fertility problems, I’d pick cancer.
One well-timed roll in the hay, then two weeks later:
I cried—though less than you probably think, less than I did the other day when we were reading about the Lorax popping out of the
tree stump and the Once-ler handing over the very last Truffula seed. That about killed me. Georgia, you hate it when I cry. All my conspicuous emoting turns you off. That fed-up look you give me at teacher retirement parties or soccer games or the winter concert is partly how I know that I am only a few years away from exasperating you by the way I apply my lipstick or talk to waiters or answer the phone or drive or walk or breathe.
Anyway, Dad hugged me and made some crack about his uber-sperm and the Teutonic Knights. I held up the pregnancy test stick and said, “Should we keep this?”
“Is that gross?”
“I don’t care, I’m keeping it,” I said.
Then Dad suggested we go downstairs, have a Guinness, and play some darts. So we did.
Darts is the only “sport” in which I have a real chance to beat Dad. He seems to have forgiven me
for not being the athlete my family background would have predicted. All those Corrigan coaches and athletic directors and all-Americans—and me, a girl who’d hear birds singing upon entering the office supplies aisle at Radnor Pharmacy. You girls can pin your fixation with file folders, hole-punchers, and three-ring binders on me. Watching you fashion a wallet out of index cards and double-sided tape, or embellish the edges of place cards with deckle-edge scissors, or swoon over a metallic, fine-tip paint pen? Talk about genetic validation.
But back to darts. I spent the first two years after college mastering bar games with a bunch of Sigma Chi’s, while somewhere in downtown Little Rock, Dad worked until midnight at the analyst desk of an investment bank. Before I challenged him to a game, he’d never held a dart. He caught on. A few years later, on our honeymoon,
we ended every night playing on an outdoor dart-board, usually alongside an Indian busboy named Ibrahim, who had this unforgettable hair, perfectly cut and styled, shiny and black—the moon laid down a line on it like it was a lake. The point is, as funny as it seems, darts are kind of a romantic symbol for us.
When I finally started having contractions, forty-one weeks after the Guinness, Dad said, “Stay here. I’ll get the good darts. We’ll play to pass the time.”
“They’re on the corner of the table,” I called after him. “Underneath some bibs and board books.”
I have the video from that day. It’s not much to watch—it took seventeen hours and an IV of Pitocin to start active labor—but every so often, you can see me bend over and wince. I’ll show you, assuming
you’re old enough to hear me say “sweet-Jesus-mother-fucker.” You know the rest of the story—the three-foot umbilical cord, the Jackson Browne song that was playing about soothing a fevered brow, the stork bite on your forehead that I can still sometimes see traces of when you get really hot or terribly upset.
I saw it last week, actually, when you came downstairs with a Safeway bag filled with paperback books and said, “I have to give these away.”
“What?” I asked.
“I have to find all my other books and give them away too.”
“Honey, why? What’s the matter?”
“Because—I don’t understand them,” you said, as your bottom lip quivered. “I don’t understand the words. You know all the Harry Potter books I’ve read?”
“I don’t understand
of them. I read them but I don’t know what’s happening in them.”
You stood there, totally sick with the sense that you were not smart like I told you you were, and now you had to tell me, and how could I ever love a kid who didn’t understand Quidditch or the Dark Arts, divination or transfiguration?
“Oh honey, no one understands Harry Potter.” I held out my arms but you didn’t come.
“Margaret Faust does. Even Ruby does—and she’s
“Well, I don’t. All I know is that I’m a Miggle.”
“Come here. Tell me what you were reading just now that got you so upset—”
“I was reading a book that the librarian said is
for third-grade girls! So obviously, I should
not even be in the third grade because I am so stupid!” Then the collapse into me, then the cry that sounds like a sewing machine at full speed.
Eventually, you went upstairs to get the book so we could read together. You opened to page one and read aloud.
“It says Pru would give her
. What is an
You stopped at every word you didn’t know—
utter, ransacked, pitch-perfect
—no longer willing to skate past all those words and idioms.
“You feel better?” I said, after we finished the first chapter.
“Yeah. Can we keep going?”
“And Mom, it’s Muggle.”
It won’t always be so easy to make your stork bite disappear.
During the four-month maternity leave that became the next eight years, I made a job for myself as a photographer. It was pretty nervy, I guess, since I didn’t have any training in composition or light or printing—just a one-night seminar at Elmwood Camera. But trust me when I say there’s a lot you can figure out as you go. You don’t always have to be Qualified or Experienced. Nobody really knows what they’re doing, except maybe gene-splitters, and even they’d probably admit that there’s an un-teachable art to everything.