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Sunday Journal: Breaking with the painful family past

By Charlotte Gullick

Dad has been dead for three months, and it feels as if he's been dead all my life.

I'm sitting on the front porch, waiting for the 20-yard garbage bin to be delivered. Mom said she would come later to help me clear some of the stuff. I close my eyes and try to imagine the house of my childhood transformed, wondering which wall I could knock out that would turn that little box into a place of peace. My mind plays out different possibilities, and I think about the choices I've made that have landed me here, in the aftermath of my parents' lives, trying to clean up. The growl of an engine pulls me to my feet and I think about all the nights when I was a kid and we waited for Dad's garbage truck to ascend our hill. My memories feel tricky right now, like maybe all the violence of my youth didn't actually happen, that the times Dad hit mom or someone else weren't really that bad.

The green Solid Waste truck makes its way past the pond and I walk to the driver's side and direct him where to put the giant, rust-covered container. He quickly works the gears and gets the truck turned and slides the container to the ground with a solid thud, and is gone before I learn his name or anything about him. It must be because I'm the daughter of a garbage man, but I usually try to make contact with them — it seems as if too often they are disrespected, forgotten.

I open the back doors of the container, metal groaning, trying to decide where to start. The wooden shelf Dad built for Mom's canning 20 years ago still holds jar upon jar of green beans, pears, apples, pickles. I pick one up and study the pale contents of the pears inside. Mom's careful handwriting across the top tells me through the years that I'm holding her work from 1988 — when I was a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College, the year of Dad's first affair that we knew about. The night of finding him telegraphs into me, the jar a jagged reminder of how stupid and powerless I felt seeing him and Betty tangled up together in the car, then him exiting and weaving drunkenly toward me. How Mom and my 4-year-old brother moved in with me my first year of college, how I struggled to do well in school, feed us all, and channel Mom's anger.

I step back from the canning shelf, angry at this history glistening beneath the dust. All this food wasted, looked over, each a portal to all that was wrong in my family.

With a determined grasp, I pick the jar back up and run to the container. I open the door and step inside. With all my strength, I fling the pears against the opposite wall. The jar shatters with a satisfying sound, and the fruit slides to the metal floor, small lumps of history that are no longer mine to eat.

I stand over the pears, resisting the urge to further squish them as their juices spread into a sticky puddle.


I turn to see Mom's face.

"What are you doing?"

"I didn't hear your truck," I say.

"Did you break that jar?" She steps inside and sniffs. Her dyed hair is pulled back into a ponytail and she wears jeans and a T-shirt — ready for work.

I shrug, and to my surprise, I smile.

She steps all the way in. "That's my work, you know."

I nod. "But do you plan on eating it?"

"I don't think so."

"Then, let's start here, Mom. Let's clean the canning shelf."

She plants her feet and avoids my eyes. I wonder what she must feel, the love of her life dead, and her standing inside a garbage container. Maybe she has felt this way for a long time.

"Let's do it." She grins and reaches out her hand. I take it and follow her back to the canning shelf. She grabs two green bean jars. The pears still call me, so I take two. We march back to the container, walk inside, and throw the jars with all our might. They shatter, their contents sliding to the floor. Almost running, we go back for more and throw and throw and throw. I whoop and holler and try an overhand pitch with some pickles, then an underhand with tomatoes. My muscles rally at the release, at the letting go. Mom giggles and continues to go back for more. Maybe I can turn this house into a place worth living in. It's the most fun I can ever remember having with Mom, and I try not to overthink the moment.

Charlotte Gullick, director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in California, was recently awarded a Christopher Isherwood Foundation grant for fiction writing. Her first novel, "By Way of Water," was published in 2002 by Penguin/Putnam.

Sunday Journal: Breaking with the painful family past 07/26/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 26, 2008 4:31am]
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