Personal Prose

The Oleander & The Groves

Your story. It is either the thing that shapes you – your breath, your gait — the drive motoring inside you — or it is the mind’s trickery. Either it is everything or it is nothing. I always thought that in telling my story I might be released as if my life might follow the arc of some fictional character and that somehow, in the knowledge of how I came to be and what has swirled around me that I might move on, move past… but there are times when it seems the very thing that keeps me tethered to this plodding and intractable earth.

My brother asked me to join him and the mothers of his children — one of the mother’s parent’s having rented a beautiful and large beach house on a stretch of relatively private oceanfront on the Atlantic coast of Florida not far from where my brother was raised, where my father was killed, where my parents first met, where my mother and I traveled that February day in 1978 for his funeral.

For my brother the land held so much more than that for it shaped him — with its spanish moss and the old moneyed houses along the bay set far back along their lots — bordered by mango and avocado groves long walled off by chainlink and topped with barbed wire. As he drove the car he told me how he used to bike along this road and how I said every child had a neighborhood like that — one they drove past and wished they belonged to — a place where the rules of life seemed fundamentally different than their own… he showed me the low limestone house — white with a tiled roof and broad leafed plants unfurled everywhere among tiny red blossoms no larger than a grown man’s fingertip –and told me how it was the house his parents built — meaning his mother and our father — and the park where, he said, they had to shoot the monkey’s out of the trees when the neighborhoods were first carved out of the tropics here.

“And there” he said, as we passed by the flat and ambiguous strip malls that could be anywhere — save the white highways I remembered from childhood so different from the asphalt I was so familiar with –“that’s the hospital where dad was pronounced dead” — he’d asked if I wanted to see the place where it had happened but I said no — it would be one thing if he’d died in that spot and then there would seem something almost sacred about it — but I could picture it well enough in my head. The police department and I thought of that kind woman all those years ago who sent me all the documents in the mail when I told her I was writing a book about my father.

I had a strange moment when we were driving on A1A. I don’t remember if it had been raining that day but it was in the evening and we were returning from somewhere and he asked if I remembered the condominium where we stayed when we came for the funeral — I didn’t and all I could conjure up from that time was the vague impression of pews and the backs of people’s heads and how my mother says I rushed to sit with my brothers, excited to be with them and so she was left in the back with near strangers. I was thinking of that memory and then how I’d had a recurring nightmare since that time…a dream would open like the beginning sequences of a film — and it would pan out to show you a multi-level building with doors and stairs along each end — each end and each floor lit by the red of the exit signs — bathing the entire scene in a red light — and as I was thinking that my brother asked me if I recognized anything and I looked up to one of the anonymous stucco condo complexes along the beach — this one seeming a pale aqua in the early evening light and as we passed in the car I saw the edge of the complex and each door of each floor lit with exit signs — and I thought of how it was the first word I could spell and I lost my breath for a moment because I understood with a kind of calm clarity that this was a building that had remained lodged in my psyche for over thirty years now. And then we drove past because mostly we were concerned with the dailiness of life with toddlers and though my brother seemed untouched by it all I could do was look out to that stretch of beach and think of a photograph my mother kept of the year she met my father. 1966.

She is in a bikini, her hair is wet and in her face and her arm is thrust out to the side as if she’s trying to steady herself as she emerges from the surf — it is not a flattering photograph particularly — and though she is, I’m almost certain, sober — I can’t disentangle it from the photographs I have of her from another night where she is not — and how she told me the night she met my father she got drunk and tried to drown herself in the surf. My brother did say for the first time that he’d overheard our father talking to his twin brother — maybe about how it is that he was becoming steadily more involved with this young woman — when his marriage was failing and he had three very young boys — and how my brother remembers my father saying “you don’t understand. She is like a child. I could try to explain it to her but she wouldn’t understand. She is like a child.” I thought of that after my brother told me — as if all of the ghosts of their younger selves were out there on the beach — and it was only when I came home that I remember the further irony that my mother’s birthfather — the man who abandoned my grandmother and my three year old mother — he’d settled and made a life, had children in the very town where I was now dug into the sand watching my daughter pour out pails. My mother’s half-brother was in that town — I may have seen him surf-casting — maybe it was his boat we saw motoring past as we stood on the jetty…

I’ve been having a bit of a mid-life crisis over here. I’m turning forty and feel in all ways insignificant. I go back and forth between feeling like a failure in terms of my creative life and then it’s usually G who hands me a bit of perspective about Z and my role in her life — and W’s too of course.

In my own life I’ve thrown around the barbed term ‘privilege’ to somehow mark those I see as existing in a kind of untouched world — where they can’t imagine anything but access and success and their lives aren’t marked by such tremendous and intense yearning — to be somewhere — beyond the cracked walls and small grid of city streets — to be out of this moment, this life — the privilege to believe the world offers abundance rather than scarcity — success rather than failure –for all my railing against the privileged I can’t think of something I want more for Z than the very belief that she can do whatever it is that she sets out to do in life rather than this poverty consciousness that I never quite seem to shake — no matter how different the circumstances of my life are now from when I was a child — and there are such vast differences.

I’ve never liked Florida for obvious reasons. It seems a place of quick schemes and false promise and drained swamps. There was a house just down the beach from the place we rented. It had large gates largely disguised by these lush and beautiful flowering trees. I would pass it each day and wonder what life would be like in a place so relentlessly blooming, sand blowing across the streets. When I mentioned the place my brother said he wished he could remember the name of those trees “they are poisonous” he said. We were on the way to the airport, past the hospital, past the ambiguous strip malls, “oleander” he said, the grand houses with their spanish moss and abandoned chained off groves far behind us. “Oleander.”

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