They lived with her parents all summer while her mouth healed, waiting for the false teeth, they tiptoed but they did not touch.

After the stitches came out after she learned to mix

tooth powder with water

to make the glue

that held her mouth together, after five miscarriages,

five never-born sons,

my parents tried again

and created me. He didn’t ever hit her again, but she lived in the fear that he would, which had everything to do with her habits of silence.


I said “shit”

in front of the church ladies gathered in our kitchen for coffee and doughnuts, three-year-old me:

the potato-shaped, sturdy-legged parrot-tongued echo chamber I fell down, scraped my knee, and said “shit” in frustration, the word I had learned from my mother

crammed and dammed

into the corseted life of a minister’s wife

where she couldn’t say “shit”

if she had a mouthful.

But alone,

with me,

she could, and did frequently.

That day in the kitchen, as the church ladies

eyed my mother’s handmade curtains, measuring her skills, I baby-cursed and was snatched from the floor.

Shoving a bar of soap into the mouth of a child was then a common practice, church lady approved, for scrubbing dirty words from the minds of the young, the violence of generational silence brutally handed down.

Ivory grooves deep-carved in the bar by my baby teeth Mommy’s bruising fingers pinning me against the sink My sobs captured in bubbles heard only after they popped, after I was jailed in my room and the ladies of the church and my mother sipped bitterness and shared crumbs.

I learned then that words had such power

some must never be spoken and was thus robbed of both tongue and the truth.


My mother took me to a pond when I was four years old for swimming lessons. There was a beach, of sorts, littered with pine needles and mothers smoking cigarettes on towels, wearing sweaters and warm socks; summer in the North Country.

Mom tugged off my sweatshirt and shooed me toward the crowd of kids standing at water’s edge. The Lady of the Lake, our swimming teacher, a giantess topped with a rubber bathing cap studded with plastic flowers,

began the lesson.

On our bellies, facing the beach, hands in the mud legs in the water, my feet motorboated obediently.

I didn’t mind kicking long as I could hold on to the shore.

But then the Lady beckoned us into deep water one by one. I refused, even with the rest of the class staring.

The Lady hooked me under the armpits and pulled me in.

Never trust anyone with plastic flowers on their head.

I hollered so loud the Lady consulted with my mother,

the other moms clucking and whispering.

I won

the position at the shallowest edge of the pond where I pulled through a few inches of water with my hands in the earth, occasionally waving an arm in the air to pretend like I was swimming,

a stubborn tadpole

suspicious of the deep.

directionally challenged

In first grade we moved country mouse to the city

whiskers quivering, eyes wide, couple days later Mom put my sister in the stroller and we three walked through a drizzle of gold and ruby leaves up one hill, down another to the new school, made of bricks, registered in the office, Mom handed me my lunch box and waved

a fast goodbye

I sat in the back row, played hopscotch with some girls, and ran hands in the air as the bell rang at day’s end followed the crowd out the door, the crossing guard our white-gloved guardian, I walked down the block

in the wrong direction


Back to the intersection, ninety-degree turn went up the hill, that felt better until it didn’t

until the houses were the wrong shape to hold my family.


Back to the intersection, worried, then down the third street, the wrong third way.

Stopped. Back to the intersection the fourth spoke of the wheel another mistake.

Last kid in sight, country mouse, five years old, spinning

at the center of a compass that had lost her true north

A white glove waved, the guard crouched wings tucked neatly behind her back, eyes all-seeing

she wiped my tears and took my hand and led me

up the hill again, gold and ruby leaves, farther than I’d dared on my own tiny paws, until we crested and scurried down the other side and the houses changed shape and at the very bottom of the hill stood my new home my mother waiting at the curb.


Mr. Irving styled and helmeted my mom’s hair introduced her to the other ladies, permed, perfumed, fuming about their husbands the confessor hairdresser, he knew all the juicy details. Told Mom I should join the city swim team, cuz all the kids did and it would make me tired enough to sleep better at night, and not spend so much time in her hair.

There was a slight delay in joining the team while I learned to swim in water deeper than six inches. But then I traded muddy ponds for cement swimming pools in schools and parks all over the city, tadpoling backstroking, butterflying, freestyling until my body leaned, gleamed, hardened into a core of speed

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