Memory Lane

The past beats inside me like a second heart.” John Banville, The Sea

I haven’t accomplished many of the tasks that I thought I’d get to during covid quarantine. I didn’t reorganize the kitchen cabinets or the linen closet or my basement study that we took apart for needed repair. I’ve written some poems, revised, listed thoughts for new ones. I’ve researched a project that’s intrigued me for some time, but I haven’t had the gumption to start a new novel. Poems are calling to me these days.

Lately I’ve been having Zoom critiques with a writing friend, Laura, and that’s prompted me to take a stroll down memory lane, especially my childhood and teen years and college experiences. What a pleasure, looking back to staying at The Sinclair By the Sea at Virginia Beach for a few years, and modelling at Miller & Rhoads, and swimming at Moore’s Lake and Lake Chester during sultry Richmond summer days.

Today I took out my sophomore yearbook. I have no idea where the others are; my parents always purchased them. I fear they were in the old college trunk where I stored memorabilia. That trunk was flooded in my parents’ basement, but my older daughter retrieved in and has it in her basement now. She says some things were destroyed, and she’s thrown them out, but some weren’t. I haven’t had the will to sort through the things she was able to save..This one yearbook, the 1961 Marshalite, was on a shelf in the kitchen. Others might be in book boxes in the attic that I never unpacked when we moved into this house almost twenty years ago—another project postponed—or in that unopened trunk. I don’t think that neglect was out of some Freudian fear. I’m just a creature of habit and memory lane hadn’t gotten my attention.

But while doing freewrites with Laura some memories from high school piqued my interest and I pulled out that 1961 edition. The names and photos gave me instant recollection of classmates and events, joyful moments and sad. This book was my brother’s—he was two years older—so the inscriptions were to him, not me. I really need to find those other yearbooks.

One teacher, Miss Mary Peple (the teachers went by Miss or Mrs. In those days, just a fact), awoke my love of words with vocabulary study. Her Public Speaking class was demanding but stimulating, too, and I still have our textbook—one of the few we had to buy in those days so we could learn how to notate. Miss Mary Virginia Daughtrey, my biology teacher, chose me for her lab assistant that year. Both these brilliant women encouraged me to go to college; I don’t recall any other teacher planting that seed before or after them.  Mr. Wiltshire was the young, handsome French teacher. In his class we only spoke French. I’ll never forget the day he asked Arthur Long “Combien des oreilles avez-vous?” or How many ears do you have? Arthur answered “J’ais vingt-deux orielles,” or I have twenty-two ears. We all stared at Mr. Wiltshire who struggled for composure.

Going through that yearbook has nourished seeds for at least twenty poems. I’ve jotted pages of notes in my writing journal: Autograph books, messages in yearbooks, my PE teacher Miss McKenney who we considered creepy ’cause she “checked up” on us when we were taking showers, the two librarians we thought were “queer,” that label we used too freely back in the day. Another embarrassing memory: “Dixie” was our fight song we cheerleaders performed, dancing the Charleston to it at pep ralies and home games. Just ugh. Richmond has its own dark history of closed-minded citizens and racism. I doubt teenagers there are as naïve as I was. That’s what writing is about, according to Kurasawa: “Art is not averting your eyes.” That’s true for poetry, too. Shame is part of the truth. My advisor at VCU used to say, “The work must be done.” I agree. Honesty is part of the work.



Life begins the day you start a garden.” Chinese Proverb

During the time of covid I didn’t go to restaurants, I didn’t even go to the grocery store–my husband was our designated shopper, after the initial months when I had Kroger deliver. Mostly I cooked at home, though on occasion out of sheer boredom John would pick up curbside from a local favorite restaurant, The Dahlia, or we’d order from King’s Island. From March 2020 until early 2021 I was pretty much a hermit.

We got our first Moderna vaccine the first of March–a drive to Danville 90 miles away, but it was worth it. We still had some chilly nights, but I felt brave enough to go to our local nursery to look at plants (wearing my mask, of course) and to consider planting a garden this year, after a fallow season last spring and summer. The front and back yards looked barren and terrible; my family of gardening women would have been horrified.

I took to the project with a vengeance, probably moreso than ever, it was such a relief to be DOING something outdoors. First I pruned the roses; then I made lists of shade plants and sun plants and perennials and annuals and the number of containers I’d need to top off with potting soil. I’d spent the year reading, writing and revising, exchanging work with long-distance writing friends, but none of my activities had been related to growing anything. My garden had been a metaphor for the way covid made me feel, emptied out, fallow. No more.

This spring has been unusually cool and dry. Most evenings I’ve had to water the new plants–Astilbe, Columbine, Delphinium, Lupine, Bee Balm, Speedwell. I planted a couple of cherry tomatoes and herbs that we use in our salads, dill and parsley and basil and chives. Everything is growing well; the garden is lush. I’m keeping the bird feeders full, and it’s a delight to watch the cardinals and wrens and chickadees each morning. One evening I even saw goldfinch–they haven’t returned, so they must have been journeying farther south. And towhees for about a week, but they’ve moved on, too. My neighbor has a pair of Eastern blues nesting in her box, so they swoop over every once in a while. I was going to hire help to tear the runaway honeysuckle vines off my back fence, but the birds love it too much, so it stays.

Life is back. Looking outward instead of inward has been rejuvenating. Gradually we’ve met friends for wine or drinks or dinner. My garden grows.


Collage by John Dure Morgan

I restore myself when I’m alone.” Marilyn Monroe

Covid has forced aloneness. Ironic: as a writer, time alone was that longed-for commodity. Apparently like everything else it’s a double-edged sword. Now I want company. Beer and nachos with my college roommate. An overnight to exchange ideas with my women writer friends. A road trip to visit people I haven’t seen in way too long.

But I isolate here at home with my husband John. He’s a visual artist, so he leaves almost daily to go to his studio and work. I have plenty of time to write, to read, to do research, to think. Self-care, other-care: how to maintain both while the level of anxiety beneath the surface bubbles and brews, ever present.

Like so many people we’ve made efforts to restore our home, to make it more embracing as we spend countless hours here. A few months ago we replaced the roof. The red is inviting, we think. Now, this week, a crew of basement restorers are here shoring up the concrete wall that was cracking, inserting a pump to drain moisture out of that space so it won’t flood any more. I’m planning the spring plantings for the yard. Yesterday I cut honeysuckle vines out of the apple tree at the back fence and put suet feeders out for the Eastern bluebirds. Watching the birds come to the feeders in the morning gives me a lift. A few days above fifty degrees has given me renewed energy and optimism.

Last year I did considerable research on the life of Marilyn Monroe, the elusive Norma Jean. One thing I learned: she wrote poetry. She actually exchanged work and was friends with Norman Rosten and she knew Carl Sandburg. Like so many public personalities Marilyn’s media image was a fabrication, that disconnect between the external woman people thought they knew and the complicated interior woman. She wanted to be famous and beloved, certainly. But she wanted to be taken seriously, too, for her thoughts and aspirations. She married Arthur Miller, hoping to nourish a life of the mind. She studied with Lee Strasberg, trying to deepen her acting skills.

Life is too short. Time is what we’ve given, that’s it. Each of us finds ways to restore ourselves or we wither, like fruit left on the tree.

What will restore us after covid, I wonder. Spring is on its way. I am so grateful that we’ll have time at the beach in Kill Devil Hills, to celebrate our anniversary, returning to the same spot I’ve visited for over fifty years. And we’ll open our cabin in the mountains in Bath County. The birds are flocking to the feeders here at home. I know how lucky I am to have these spots to turn to for renewal and restoration.

Are You Gregg’s Mother?

“To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” Kurasowa, Japanese Director

That’s probably good advice for a mother, too.

Akira Kurasowa’s classic movie Rashomon centers around a trial for the murder of a samurai warrior. The bandit who killed him, the samurai’s wife, and a woodcutter who claims to be a witness must all testify. Their stories vary so much that a medium conjures the samurai himself to describe what happened. This reference film “blurs the lines between memory and fact.” What is memory, after all, but a personal filter for experience.

I’m a most fortunate woman. I have four healthy, independent adult children. I’ve strived to be a loving, understanding, involved mother from the day my first daughter was born. My older daughter appeared in the world independent and confident. When she was four she announced one evening, “Mama, please don’t read out loud any more. I can read faster in my head.” My older son–actually my stepson–came to live with us when he was seven. So he has double trouble, two moms, but his heart’s plenty big for that. His positive nature infects everyone around him. Gregg is next–loving, smart, thoughtful, kind, spiritual. My younger daughter, born ten years after Gregg, is creative, theatrical, funny, and an original thinker. All four have stories to tell, rewarding experiences to cherish as well as difficult, trying moments that challenged their lives and made them stronger. Each could write a book.

Their lives are intertwined, of course, but each is one of a kind. Making way for individuality was always important to me, often discouraged during my growing up when “fitting in” was a mark of respectability.

One might ask Why did you choose to write about being Gregg’s mother, and not, say, any one of the other three? The two older children had already left home for college and beyond when Gregg disappeared the first time, in the grips of mental illness. That’s when I started writing Are You Gregg’s Mother?, trying to figure out as a mother how it was possible for him to go so far astray, for me to literally lose him to mental illness. I didn’t think I’d ignored warning signs, but maybe I had. I’d had my own troubles, my own mental crises, learned the hard way to be both more reflective and more assertive–had that caused me to “avert my eyes” from Gregg when he needed me most? The book began as exploration, personal reflection.

The memoir evolved, telling my story as a mother raising a beautiful son who develops paranoid schizophrenia. That disease is a body snatcher, stealing a person’s personality, taking his judgment hostage. even disguising the sound of his voice. I had no idea of its power until it possessed Gregg.

The first time Gregg disappeared for two years. The second time he was gone over three years, before we had any idea where he was or if he was even alive. This book doesn’t ask the question Why didn’t Gregg learn his lesson that first time.? The disease is not a lesson: it’s like demonic possession. Medications have improved these past two decades, but even with the best medication the person feels “less than,” often, and wants to get off the meds as soon as he starts to feel better. Plus the legal system and the mental health regulations rob a parent of most of their ability to help after their child turns eighteen. The mental and physical takeover of the person with the illness can be incomprehensible unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

Having a child disappear is one of a parents’ two worst nightmares. In Virginia, my home state, Gil Harrington’s daughter Morgan disappeared after a concert one night. Gil says, “Experiencing what it’s like to have a missing child, knowing that pain, it’s like being in a terrible club.” Morgan was brutally murdered. Virginia State Delegate Creigh Deeds’ son Gus died a horrible death the day after he was turned away from his local hospital because they couldn’t locate a mental health bed for him.

But this is my story, as Gregg’s mother, told as honestly as I’m able through the filter of my memory. It’s my way of “not averting my eyes,” of trying to look hard at coping with paranoid schizophrenia as it invaded my son and my family. It describes the disappearances, the hospitalizations, the searches, my mistakes as well as my honest efforts to do what’s right, many times having no idea what that might be.

A child’s illness leaves a parent feeling alone and helpless far too often. This memoir is an attempt to tell parents you’re not alone, to connect on a level that textbooks and movies and therapists can’t. From a loving mother’s unique vantage.

After confronting my own depression I left my full-time teaching job and earned an MFA in writing. I write fiction, poetry, personal essay, art criticism. But the most difficult thing I’ve ever written is this memoir. I’ve tried to be as honest and true as possible from my point of view, as I remember and attempt to convey my life with Gregg. I’ve tried hard not to avert my eyes.


Etc 2020 by Aggie Zed

“I create in the cracks of my life, the places that I love both real and imagined. Creating in the garden and in the studio, the things that give my heart moments of quiet peace. I’ve been extremely grateful for those moments.” Gina Louthian, Visual Artist

Bones by John Dure Morgan

For most of my adult life I’ve had to juggle time as a professional educator, wife, mother, and writer. Finding the space to write was never easy, but I managed because it was important to me. As I’ve often told students, time is one of the few things that we control. When I retired four years ago time finally became my ally. When the covid pandemic hit in March the time factor should not have been important to me because I’m in charge of the flow of my days now, and the virus didn’t change that, but I’ve been surprised by the way the anxiety surrounding the crisis has eroded my creativity.

It’s been since late July that I’ve written a blog. I soldiered on for a while, through July, but at some point I began to doubt my authority to say anything that mattered in the midst of such a life/death climate. In the early months of the pandemic I had my poetry chapbook final edits to complete; then I had to work on revising my memoir, Are You Gregg’s Mother? While I wasn’t creating new work, I was writing. I was fortunate to have a critique job for another writer in the area this summer, response to his novel in progress. Not going on annual retreat to Nimrod Hall was a creative blow, too, a loss that took a toll. Somehow I managed to write six new poems during this time, though–always a slow process for me–but no new fiction.

I have sorely missed my writing group, both the one nearby and the one that has sustained me out in cyberspace. I was meeting with two writers in Blacksburg once a month but we had to stop around the Christmas holidays and then we were never able to start again when covid hit. For years I have exchanged work with a dear writer friend Laura who lives outside Boston. At first we did that via snail mail, but in recent years we’ve used the internet. We both came to the conclusion of some big projects together a few months back and after covid hit we didn’t schedule any new exchanges.

Other artists have managed to keep making new work even in this jarring climate. My husband John has been a model artist for me to admire and strive to emulate. He goes to his studio on most days no matter what–virus, tense political climate, sickness and in health, he’s married to his creative process. And it shows. He’s made collage after collage since March and has some major assemblages in the works, too.

Aggie Zed and Gina Louthian are two life-long visual artists who haven’t been stopped or stymied by the virus. Both post new work regularly on Instagram, like John, and wrap their lives around making art. I not only admire their art, I admire their commitment to create, no matter what.

I don’t think I’ve had “writer’s block” so much as I’ve had “creativity block”–a barrier to the positive flow of ideas. Fear, anxiety, uncertainty–these are powerful barriers. I can’t minimize their ability to get in the way of “my best self” and the ideas that mental exploration generate. Luckily I’ve been able to read a lot and post my responses to the many novels like Girl, Woman, Other that have kept me thinking about women and self-fulfillment and the search for meaning in life.

Just this week I had a ZOOM meeting with my two writing friends Jane and Mindy in Blacksburg and we’ve decided to exchange work again. They both have projects in the works and I’m excited to read what they’re writing. Laura and I are going to look at the novels-in-progress that we stalled a few months back. We’ll bring fresh eyes, tempered by this challenging period of forced loneliness. My next-door neighbor, visual artist Lucia, is starting new paintings, too, and we’re walking and talking about books and ideas.

The issues that have mattered to me my entire writing life–the internal lives of women and how we strive to become our fullest, honest selves–still matter to me. As I comb my thoughts and experiences and look to the visual and verbal artists I admire I intend to sharpen my creative skills and immerse myself once more in the writing that has mattered to me my entire life. I only have this voice, my own true voice, and time to use it is a gift.