The following excerpts are from essays published at Connotation Press:
The Silk Dress
My mother had a silk, floor-length, party dress, the color of dusky damson plums. She kept it hidden in the back of a closet under the sweeping staircase in the front hall, where she kept shoes, boots, and winter coats. The dress was protected by a dusty plastic collar and hidden behind a heavy raccoon coat that had belonged to her mother. Sharp-scented moth balls warned insects and children to keep away.
When we would clean house on Saturday mornings, she’d sometimes take the party dress out and hold it up to herself. Exposed to the light, it shimmered like a peacock feather beneath its pearly surface. It had puffed sleeves that ended in a point at the elbow, a high neckline with a soft ruffle, and a row of satin-covered buttons budding all the way down the front. Mom was tall and thin, with a proud hawk nose. She had worn it to an afternoon tea dance in her youth, she told us, at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
Back then, I had no idea what or where the Aragon Ballroom was, but, because of the dress, it conjured movie images of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dipping in a romantic dance—a world away from the worn Victorian farmhouse that we called home . . . .
The summer I turned seven, Project Man High launched an air balloon twenty stories high. Instead of hanging a basket from the balloon, the way Philaes Fogg had done in Around the World in Eighty Days, the space team had attached a pressurized chamber, a metal cabin not much larger than a coffin.
United States Air Force Major David Simons rode inside the craft, straight up into the stratosphere, 102,000 feet. On the mission, temperatures plummeted, and Simons had to climb into his specially designed thermal suit. Even though he was in flight for only eight hours, he would later relate that the uncanny quiet he experienced on that voyage left him feeling profoundly lonely.
I don’t remember my birthday party that year, but birthdays were archetypal then: ruffled dresses, party hats, blindfolds for pin-the-tail games. I have a photo of my best friend’s party, and mine would have been much the same—cloth-covered table, gifts on one end, plates and napkins on the other, and, at the center, flashing with candles and sugar roses, a chocolate layer cake. A circle of girls surrounded it while mothers and aunts orbited above, keeping babies and brothers under control. Grandparents settled together in armchairs, making an ever-widening system of circles. The fathers traced the outer rings where the air was sweet with tobacco—in the garage bending under the hood of a stubborn Buick, in knee-high grass talking over the lawn mower, or—unseen, mostly, in the greater distance—working. An assortment of cats and my dog, a terrier mutt named Scampy, wandered in and out at will, as if they weren’t subject to the same laws that ruled humanity . . . .