Discovery

by Amy Bernhard
Discovery by Amy Bernhard

Listen to Amy Bernhard read an excerpt from her piece:

I’m not allowed to drive the golf cart for the rest of the day. “You’ll hurt someone going as fast as you are,” my grandmother says for what might be the thousandth time, raising her wrinkled hand to make an awning for her face as she frowns at us from the front stoop. Mostly she’s talking to me, the older sister behind the wheel responsible for the red face and wild eyes of the younger, the worn brakes and smoking tires. Wind has whipped my long brown hair around my face, and I put a strand in my mouth and chew it, lower my eyes and try to look sorry. Behind her, Grandpa’s wide frame fills the doorway, bunched lips and a silent scowl. He’s getting too old to wake up early and walk around the farm like he used to, so my father bought him the golf cart second-hand.

Grandma waves a white arm back and forth as if swatting a fly, and my sister and I scramble out of the golf cart and slink past her up the porch steps, into the house. At fifteen and twelve, we’re not much use here. The farm is only a ten-minute drive from our neighborhood, but it feels lightyears away—houses fall back to flat patches of land, roads narrow into ribbons of gravel. Not a library or a Dairy Queen in sight. Here the afternoons stretch out long and hot before us, hours passing so slowly we can’t help but want to stir things up. Today I’ve driven our usual high-speed rounds past the pigpen and the chicken coop, crowded and noisy, and to the old barn where Moose lives, a tired brown horse who spends most of his time flopped down in a pile of hay, watching bugs land on his nose.

Across the yard, men push wheelbarrows and drag hay bales, veins popping out along their necks and arms. They heft pails filled with corn and carry them to the red barn that sits high on a grassy hill, where a family of wild cats lives. Stiff, patchy fur, eyes sealed closed with yellow gunk, they hiss and scratch at our legs. We’re not supposed to pet them—according to Grandma they’re full of diseases—but our hearts are soft for these mean little things, and the longer they resist our touch, the harder we resolve to love them.

My father is here, too. Summers he cuts back his hours at the post office to help his father around the farm, though we all suspect Grandpa is milking it, riding beside my father in the golf cart, barking orders: Them grain sacks need fillin’, and slop them sows while you’re at it. He snaps a hand to his lower back and winces in exaggerated pain, watching my father hurry in and out of the shed, legs buckled, arms braced beneath heavy canvas grain bags. After a day of this, the car ride home is spent in silence, my father tense at the wheel, the last of evening’s rays glancing off his hardened jaw. From my seat in the back, I trace the hulk of his shoulders with my eyes, the muscles that coil and flex beneath his shirtsleeves.

No matter how in awe I am of my father’s strength, my mother is unimpressed by his plate-shattering and newspaper-throwing, acts I will later understand are born of a private sadness rather than any capacity for real physical violence. His rages are unpredictable, precipitated by something as simple as a drinking glass left out on the table, a twist-tie missing from a bag of bread. Blood rushes to his face. Spittle flies from his lips. He grabs the bag and hurls it against the wall.

My mother stands aside while he flails and shouts until he is drained of the last sharp word. Exhausted, he draws the blinds and collapses into his armchair, where he broods for the rest of the evening in front of the TV. Without a word, my mother bends and begins picking up flattened pieces of bread, sweeping crumbs into her hand and dusting them over the garbage can. When she steps back and the plastic lid falls shut with a thud, my sister and I unfreeze and resume whatever we’d been doing before his outburst.

“Your father,” she tells us one night after he’s snapped a plastic lawn chair over his knee and flung it across the backyard, “has no spine. He’ll never leave this town.”

This town: the words are weapons and she spits them into the air, where they form an image of my strong father leashed to the fields and dirt hills of his past. But for my mother, the escape from her strict parents and their small, five-block Illinois town is a point of pride—she works an hour away, at a hospital in Chicago. She met my father shortly before taking the job, a blind date arranged through mutual friends while she was still living at home, the details of their romance so plain and scarce that I’ve learned to survive on what little scraps she feeds me. Charming with his old flannel shirts and broad, unwavering smile, my mother fell quickly for my father and his promises of a greater life; after all, he was a farmer’s son, a man who knew something about growth.

Months later they were married, and in the swirl of honeymooning and house-hunting she’d forgotten all about her earlier plans to move to Chicago. She and my father settled in Shorewood, a quiet suburb only a mile up the road from his parents’ farm, and bought a yellow ranch house and a new car so my mother could commute into the city every morning for work. But the initial excitement of the drive quickly faded into exhaustion: skyscrapers stood obscured behind the persistent smog of road construction, and she spent her mornings stalled in traffic, one foot tapping the pedal while the other rode the brakes.

I’ve only been to the city once, the summer I was thirteen and my sister ten. My mother took us with her to the hospital for junior-high career day: cabinets full of cotton swabs and papery green masks, spools of gauze and latex gloves that unfurled from boxes. We sat in a back room eating chips from the vending machine and watching daytime talk shows on a small TV attached to the wall. On the other side of the door echoed the hurried squeak of white tennis shoes, the high, insistent bleat of phones on empty desks. As she worked, imagining all the people who needed my mother at that very moment, I felt myself grow huge with pride but also envy—I hated to share her with others.

Throughout the day harried nurses wearing patterned shirts identical to my mother’s would sneak into our room, lean against the door, shake cigarettes from their pockets and light matches; smoke plumed from their lips as it did from the buildings outside, and I opened my mouth to breathe it in, the gritty taste of ash making me feel mature the way the women on the talk shows were, a kind of worn intelligence in their streaky blonde hair and darkly-shadowed eyes. As the nurses smoked and chattered, I stood looking out the window, at the busy streets below. Cars sucked past, horns blared; people wore suits and ties, swung briefcases instead of slop pails. Giddy with smoke and talk, I decided right then that once I was old enough I would leave our town for those teeming crosswalks, the grime and glitter of the streets.

 

My mother only comes with us to the farm on holidays and the occasional birthday. She helps Grandma in the kitchen while my grandfather watches from the living room, leaning forward in his chair to yell instructions: “True, you’d better cook that ham longer!” Or he’ll shout at my mother, “Pour me a glass of lemonade, would ya?” a request she honors with a small grumble and roll of her eyes. One night Grandma wraps a piece of meat in a napkin and asks me to take it into the living room and have Grandpa taste it. He pops it into his mouth, chews thoughtfully before spitting it back into the napkin. “Too dry, tell her,” he says, and as I start to walk away, holding the napkin out at my side to avoid touching the wet part, he turns his head toward the kitchen and bawls, “Damn meat’s too dry!”

My mother freezes over the cutting board, the knife in her hand shaking so hard I’m afraid she might go crazy and throw it at him. Instead she turns and glares at Grandma, who is standing at the counter measuring water and sugaring a pie in the silent, mechanical way she does almost everything. In my mother’s eyes burns a kind of challenge—your grandmother won’t ever stand up for herself, she likes telling me, she’s too weak—and though I won’t realize the contradiction in her words until much later, I’m surprised to see Grandma’s face grow dark with fury. With sharp, quick steps, she crosses to the stove and adds twenty minutes to the timer, then fixes my mother with the same disapproving stare she reserves for my sister and me when we take the golf cart. If my mother is startled she tries not to show it, simply purses her lips and goes back to work on the onions. Now, almost ten years later, it’s clear to me that my grandmother was defending her life that night in the kitchen, a small victory I had overlooked. Back then my mother towered before me like one of the skyscrapers in her city, huge and blinding, and everyone else—everything else—was eclipsed.

Now, at fifteen, I am beginning to see past her. Driving home after a Christmas party at the farm last December, I asked my father why the men in his family call grandma True, a nickname that sounds mean-spirited when spoken in their low, teasing tenors. The sky outside my window sprawled deep and black over cornfields rigid with frost, breath escaping my mouth in frosty puffs. Before my father could answer, my mother swiveled in the passenger seat to face him. “Because,” she said, her cheeks red from the cold and a long night’s work in the kitchen, “they’re all sexist.” The word hung in the air like an icicle from one of the trees outside. My father’s fingers tightened around the steering wheel.

“Damnit, Dana.” His eyes flicked up to the rearview mirror, where my sister and I sat in back with our pile of presents, the plastic bows and colored tissue paper making soft shushing noises as we bumped along the road. ”Don’t start again with that bull.”

“Please don’t swear,” I said in the calm voice I’d been practicing, the one that made me feel especially mature for my age.

My father grunted and re-focused on the road, a single vein pulsing in his neck. “That bull,” as I’ve come to know it, refers to his complaints about my mother’s housekeeping, or lack thereof. Our evenings all begin the same way. Home late from the hospital and still dressed in her nurse’s scrubs, she flies through the back door and starts heating up a frozen pizza or banging pans together for spaghetti, chiding my father under her breath: ”You think I’m your mother? Make your own dinner for a change.” Even when she is home, there’s a part of her that’s absent, floating above us like a spirit disconnected from its body. She sits at the kitchen table most of the day, staring out the window, tracing her fingers around the shapes of things: a stained coffee cup, the edges of a magazine, the little daises printed on our tablecloth. My sister and I tiptoe around her and fix our own meals without a sound, careful not to get too close.

Since my mother hates to cook, my father brings my sister and me with him to eat lunch at the farm: potato salad, cold Pepsi from the can, ham sandwiches with butter smeared on both sides of the bread that I wipe off on the edge of my chair when no one’s looking. My uncles sit with their elbows on the table, sleeves rolled up over arms slick with sweat. They eat hunched over their plates, jaws working, heads bowed as if in silent prayer. At the head of the table, Grandpa is talking and pointing; small chunks of potato salad fly from his fingers and splatter the checkered tablecloth. He eats with ravenous abandon, barely swallowing one bite before taking another, scraping every last bit of food from his plate before collapsing back in his chair with a noisy sigh. Across the table Grandma passes bowls of food to my uncles, and I watch them take seconds, thirds, before returning the dish to her hands. She peeks quickly inside before passing it on again, serving herself only after the men have had their fill. They rise and pull on their boots at the porch door, trudge back out to the fields. After they’ve gone, Grandma lingers at the table with me and picks at the scraps of food left on their plates. Sometimes we talk about what I’m learning in school, or whether I’d enjoyed a particular dish enough to have it again. Sometimes we sit in silence and look out the window, past the knotted crabapple tree to the highway off in the distance, Grandma licking her fingers and watching cars flash by. She chews slowly, filling herself on the satisfaction of others.

I’m relieved when lunch is over and the house falls into silence. The floors sigh beneath passing feet, the walls creak and snap as my grandmother lowers herself limb by limb into a stiff green armchair in the living room, a stack of library books in her lap. On their covers, women with wonderful hair gaze out at train stations and oceans, Grandma making low noises in her throat as she thumbs through the pages, sitting with one leg crossed over the other so that her gray slacks pull up to reveal a white, wrinkled ankle. These slow afternoons are the only times I see her apart from my grandfather, to whom she’s been married fifty years, the length of their time together visible in her worn, cracked knuckles, the leathery tough of her hands. Fifty years, and still—what is this longing she seems to feel that is so similar to my mother’s? Two wives at their windows, dreaming of other places, other worlds, or maybe wishing they could be happier in their own. One stares out at a fenced backyard, a cup of coffee in her hand; the other sets plates around a kitchen table as the sun lowers over the sloped roof of the barn, a cool evening breeze pushing back curtains from the window she keeps glancing out of, listening for the crunch of boots against gravel—her husband’s return from the fields.

While my grandmother reads, I wander from room to room, picking things up and putting them back down. There are exotic treasures here, unimaginably old, fragile things that never seem to move from their places: claw-footed couches and wingback chairs, beautiful wood cabinets and oil paintings. Lace doilies cling like spider webs to every surface, and on the kitchen counter rests a glass bowl of peppermints that I know are old because last summer I buried a penny at the bottom, and it’s still there.

At the back of the house, Grandpa’s big wooden desk is cluttered with rubber bands and silver letter openers, little calendars from his bank, weighty gold pens with his name, Robert L. Bernhard, engraved in cursive. Businesslike items that assert his importance in the world, a world my grandmother helps shape with a spatula and rolling pin. I love the wobbly globe that stands next to his desk, the brown shapes of countries spreading like stains over the map’s blue and green surface. While he sits and figures crop and cattle prices, I stand behind him and run my finger around the globe, imagining the places I’m going to go when I’m older.

But my favorite thing in the house is the organ, a hunk of polished black wood with bone-white keys and gold pedals that slip from my socked feet. I love lifting the heavy top and peering inside at the veiny network of wires and knobs, the tall pipes that expand like lungs when you push down on a key. Every Christmas, Grandpa asks me to play for him. Breath sharp with whiskey, he claps a hand on my shoulder and shouts, “Do you know ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’?”

“Not really.”

“Well let’s hear it!” He thumps my back and gives me a little push forward, and as I take my seat on the hard organ bench, I silently curse my father for telling him about my piano lessons. As Grandpa settles into a chair at my side, his eyes droop and loud, wet snores escape his open mouth. My mother stands and glares. Even with my back turned, I can feel the swell of her anger, the beginnings of its resonance inside my chest.

None of us grandchildren are allowed upstairs, so I wait until I’m certain Grandma is floating far out to sea on a boat with her long-lost love before sneaking up the carpeted staircase. Climbing these stairs is how I imagine it would feel to climb a mountain; the air thins and deadens the farther up you go, and I pause for a moment on the landing to catch my breath. To the right is my grandparents’ room, lit only by the pale band of sunlight hitting the bed. Besides the massive dent on the left side, where my grandfather sleeps, it’s difficult to imagine anyone living up here. Crisp white sheets, a flowered comforter draped neatly over the edge of the bed, the room’s tidy barrenness suggests a lack of intimacy that unsettles me no matter how many times I step inside—I am reminded of my parents, who have recently moved into separate bedrooms, claiming that their master bedroom is too small and they need more space. But my grandparents would never part. Only a few stray possessions offer clues to their private lives: Grandpa’s slippers at the foot of the bed, the fur streaked black with toe grime and the torturous pink hair curlers soaking in a glass of water on Grandma’s dresser.

A sturdy oak frame with a small, cloudy mirror attached, the dresser is most mysterious to me, its surface swept clean of all signs of vanity except for the plastic pink curlers my grandmother wears wrapped in her hair while she sleeps: evidence of a quiet stubbornness, perhaps, a testament to her will to endure, rejecting the extravagant objects of beauty displayed on my mother’s own dresser: bottles of perfume and liquid brown makeup, gold necklaces tangled in a glittering heap, bowls of fat diamond rings given to her by my father, one each year, at Christmastime. Here comes my mother in her pajamas, giggling like a child with her hands clasped over her eyes, led by my father into the living room where my sister and I sit surrounded by torn wrapping paper and empty boxes, flushed from the morning’s plunder. Gently, he guides her wrist to the very top of the tree, to a little satin box tucked inside a nest of tinsel and glitter-encrusted pinecones. Getting warmer, warmer, almost—there! My mother’s fingers close around the box; she lets out a small cry of surprise.

But she’s not surprised, not really. As always, my father has saved up to buy her the exact ring she requests he buy, has hidden it in the exact spot he hides it every year. Sitting before the tree, I am not so much interested in the ring as I am in the performance surrounding it. Who is my parents’ intended audience‑—my sister, me? Each other? Is the ring meant to restore our faith in what is growing clearer to be a failing marriage? Or maybe the diamond’s size and sheen distract my parents from their own private sorrows, the disappointment that no one speaks of but which hangs around us like a curtain. Whatever the reason, we allow ourselves to be fully present in the scene we’ve staged: my mother prances around the living room, extending her wrist when she stops in front of my sister and me so we can admire the shining diamond that claims her slender ring finger (cellist’s fingers, she likes to remind me, the same as my pianist’s fingers) while my father reclines in his armchair, the muscles around his mouth twitching into a tiny smile, all of us pretending that in three or four months my mother won’t have grown tired of the ring and its weight on her finger. Won’t have abandoned it to the bowl on her dresser, where it will sit with all the others soaking up the bluing light of the long afternoons.

 

There’s more beneath the dresser’s surface. A thin black spiral-bound notebook for my grandmother—no fuss, no decoration, only the plain practicality of those hard pink curlers—top right drawer, folded inside one of her many pairs of khaki slacks. For my mother, a diary with a red leather cover and gold-embossed pages, held closed by a cheap lock, a key attached to a piece of yarn. Hers reminds me of the diary I kept on and off during the second grade, purchased at the neighborhood dollar store that sold long ropes of gummy candy and sticks of cocoa butter, packages of silvery bows and the cheapest gallon of milk in town. Every night before bed I’d listen at my door for my mother’s footsteps, then creep to my closet and dig out my diary from the bottom of a large plastic bin filled with once-loved stuffed animals (I remember only one entry, a walk through the woods during a class field trip with a sandy-haired boy named Matt, our clasped hands concealed behind the backpacks that bobbed at our hips).

My mother also writes in her diary about boys, but the boys who fill her pages are not boys, they are men—men who do not happen to be my father. The details are shocking and wildly fantastic: late nights at the downtown Chicago apartment of the too-young orderly with whom my mother works at the hospital; secret meetings with the tall, wiry man who drives the big yellow Swann truck and delivers frozen meals to people in my neighborhood, referred to in her diary simply as “Swann man”; long Saturday afternoons spent cozied up with our family barber in his salon (no wonder my mother ignored my request that a woman start cutting my hair!), a short, bearded man with big teeth in a friendly mouth. When he’s not cutting hair, he plays drums in a garage band called The Plastic Santas. We listen to their cassette tape in our car, lots of screeching and clanging that my mother tries to sing along to.

I discovered her diary months ago, delivering clean laundry to everyone’s room. My family has deemed my sister the superior dishwasher, a visionary with a scrub brush and a bottle of Dawn, so I’ve been switched to laundry detail. On my knees in the half dark, I pull open her drawer, start to fill it with balled-up white socks when my eyes snag on a hint of red; a stab of shock, a little thrill, my whole body thrumming with nervous energy as I pause to listen. Then my hands reaching, the shape of the journal inside them, the disbelief of it, and this new voice—not the voice of my mother but another woman’s voice, a woman I do not know and perhaps never will know, though I am not yet ready to face that possibility—speaking to me, confiding in me the way my mother, my real mother, cannot. The dresser drawer, the most obvious of hiding places. It’s almost as if she means for one of us to find it, but who?

I settle in front of her window with the diary open on my lap. Outside, the cries of my sister and her neighborhood friends, the clank of a basketball hitting the rim. It’s a Saturday afternoon and my mother is sitting downstairs at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and looking out at the backyard, at the brown finches that gather around the feeder she’s hung from an evergreen tree. In the living room, my father reclines in his armchair, his pale, hairy ankles sticking out from plaid pajama bottoms, a soft slice of stomach nudging the buttons on his shirt—I can’t bear, suddenly, the thought of his body, how sad and weak it appears to me now. From upstairs, I hear the rustle of his newspaper, the squeak of the chair as he shifts his weight, and I imagine walking downstairs and telling him what I’ve found, imagine his face reddening and twisting, the veins protruding on his temple and neck as he lunges out of the chair, spewing curses, flinging pages of the newspaper. Even scarier would be if he didn’t react at all, a small shrug of his shoulders without lifting his eyes from the paper as if he’d seen this coming, as if he’d been waiting for it all along.

The words startle, glare up at me from the page. Who is this woman my mother writes about in her diary? And how is she related to me? Or, rather—how am I related to her? She slinks off the page in a red cocktail dress and tiny heels, her body rippling the night around her as she emerges from the passenger seat of an unfamiliar car, a strand of gold breaking across her collarbone, little silver studs winking in her ears, her long, lean fingers the only part of her body unadorned. She glides through the dark on the arm of a stranger, their steps slow and unhurried as they stroll down the same city streets I spent a whole day looking at through the hospital window, near-deserted at night, I imagine, except for a few couples stumbling out of blaring, bright bars, unhindered by crowds or traffic lights. But in her red dress, she isn’t ready to leave, and she pulls her partner into the music’s last yawning chords.

This woman bears no resemblance to the mother sitting downstairs at the kitchen table in her pajamas, no makeup, curly hair flat on one side from sleep—the sudden split from mother into woman frightens me, confuses my role as child, as daughter. Has my mother chosen to confide in me on purpose? And that would mean we’re, what—friends? Not long ago I would have been thrilled at the possibility, the two of us out to lunch somewhere, gossiping over a plate of hot cheese and crackers, trying on clothes in the downtown Macy’s dressing room, but when I imagine my mother in front of those long, gleaming mirrors, when I imagine eyes on her body, my chest swells with anger. Loyal, obedient girl, bound to my mother and her secrets. What’s most infuriating is her unspoken expectation that I keep them, my shame in knowing I won’t disobey.

Yet my need for her is undeniable, and so I think up ways to explain her behavior, make it more bearable. A mid-life crisis, I tell myself, a term I’ve heard my friends use to describe their own parents but don’t actually understand the meaning of. Or another excuse: My father doesn’t touch her, something my mother complains about late at night on the phone with my aunt, their hushed voices drifting through the floorboards. It is always easier to side with her than against her, her moods as potent as the rose perfume she wears on her neck and wrists, suffocating and intoxicating at once. Part of me can’t help but admire her cool regard for the men in her diary, a kind of power in the body I am just beginning to explore with a tube of red lipstick I’ve borrowed from the makeup bag on her dresser. Devoted daughter and fan, I check her drawer daily for new entries, caught up in the romance of secrets and sneaking around that begins to seem an everyday part of adult life.

 

My grandmother’s diary is not nearly as riveting, serving instead as a kind of catalogue of her days. She writes daily, sometimes more than once, but the entries are so short and scarcely detailed that I wait a week and let them pile up before sneaking to her bedroom. I spread out on her floor that smells like peppermints and read them slowly, which makes them feel more like stories.  Sunny today, she might say. For lunch—beef stew, cherry pie. Sometimes she mentions my father: Larry came over with girls in the pickup. We had ourselves a nice time. Grandpa rarely makes an appearance, as if in the written version of her life, the version she can control, he doesn’t exist at all.

One afternoon, after we have eaten lunch and the dishes have been washed, my grandmother sits in the living room reading her library books. She reads about girls with long hair and faraway eyes while I ease a socked foot up the stairs, into a world of discovery all my own. Inside her bedroom, I drop to my knees and pull open the dresser drawer. It’s the usual: chores performed, weather observed, meals cooked. But when I turn to the last page I am frozen, the sight of my name making my heart jump: Amy drove too fast again today, I think she scared Paula. She’s just like her mother—I wish her no luck in life.

Cheeks burning, I return the journal to its drawer and run downstairs, grinding my feet into the carpet and rattling the rickety banister, making as much noise as I can—part of me wants Grandma to hear, wants her to know what I’ve found.

I pause on the last stair and glance into the living room; a puff of white hair swivels toward the open door I’m standing behind. Though she hasn’t explained in her journal how, exactly, I’m like my mother, the words and the bitterness beneath them make me feel guilty, implicated in something old and silent.

I burst through the screen door to the kitchen and keep running until I reach the barn. It’s hot today, the sun sears the back of my neck and forces my eyes closed. I pick a corner of shade and settle into it, the peeling wall of the barn scratchy against my thin t-shirt. Inside I can hear the grunts and squeals of pigs in their pens, and in the distance, the muffled shouts of my uncles driving bulky machinery around the cornfields stretching golden-tipped and endless before me. On the farm, growth is everyone’s main concern, the days a constant cycle of watering and feeding and planting in a tireless effort to keep alive the things they’ve made.

From somewhere deep in the barn comes a small cry, and a ratty yellow cat straggles out, blinking in the sun. It sniffs the grass, the air, then turns and wanders over to where I’m sitting, hand out at my side, palm up.

“Come here,” I croon, wiggling my fingers a little, “Come here, kitty.” The cat takes a few tiny steps but pauses just out of reach. I can see the holes in its dirty ears, smell the hay and pig stink on its fur. This cat needs love, I think, and so I try again, patting my thigh and calling, “Here, kitty.” A low growl breaks in its throat; startled, I pull my hand away.

 

Amy Bernhard is a student in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays appear or are forthcoming in The Colorado Review and Waccamaw.