When We Wanted to be Alone
I grew up in the same house I was born into. While my parents, my brother, and I never moved, we renovated extensively, and once that was done, we’d rearrange how we lived in the space, swapping bedrooms, my brother and I overtaking the entire upper floor when we were teens. I left our home first, when I went to college. My mom was next, when she and my dad separated. My brother took some time, but eventually, in his mid-twenties, he went to visit an old classmate of his in Florida and he never came back. They have a daughter now.
My dad is still there, in the house we were all in together. Recently he’s fixed up the floors and replaced the chimney.
It’s large and he is alone, with the new, gleaming tiles and the woodstove. With the next phase, replacing carpet. The work needs to be done, but each new bit of stone or laminate erases a little of us four together. Each new board is his and only his.
As a family, we often prefer being by ourselves. When I was a kid and my friends would report that their mothers had been through their rooms, I was shocked. In my home we did not enter one another’s space without permission. When I married into a family who didn’t have these same boundaries, I was shocked again—my husband and I would change apartments, and each time, when his folks or brother or aunts and uncles would visit, they’d waltz into our new bedroom to take a look around. It’s not like I was a child. I was in my thirties, and I knew people did this. Still, I wondered why they thought it was okay.
The house I was raised in looks like a ship, in a way, the front of it a kind of prow over the sage and bunchgrass countryside of rural Washington state. It was once a homestead cabin, and my parents purchased it in the late seventies. They made it bigger, adding rooms and an upper story, made it theirs. The carpentry inside is rough in some places and is framed with old, heavy beams secured with metal joists, but there is prettiness to it from being worked by hand, my father’s hand. The wood is mostly reclaimed from failing apple warehouses and other torn-down buildings. The joists are from Dad’s metal lathe and welder and scrap iron.
There are photos of my brother and me before most of the improvements. We’re on the old kitchen linoleum, and there are walnuts everywhere around us. I’m in just underwear, not more than three, and my brother sports only a cloth diaper, a baby still, and we are screaming with glee. My mother says it was actually not so funny when the sack of walnuts burst as she walked in the door and her unclothed children went manic at the clattering of unhulled nuts across the floor.
Imagine the sound. Imagine her face.
My father calls this photo series the “walnut wars.” He’s the one who captured the shots, like an embedded reporter.
What happens next.
The walnuts are collected, put into a new bag. The children are given shirts, possibly, and maybe pants.
Dinner is made. Dishes are done. The children are put to bed. We are in our private rooms.
Maybe, in a few days, one stray walnut is found in the corner.
Everyone is happy enough.
Growing up, I had a mute rage about being a child. I would be sent to my room absolutely seething, thinking, I will NEVER do this to my kids! But in my room, after I’d worked off my anxiety by picking things up and putting them in order, or crawling into bed and reading, I’d think, Ha! Some punishment. I wondered how dumb my parents could be, sending me to be alone in my room, my favorite place.
I can’t remember what most of those injustices were. I do remember once I wrote my mother what I thought was a knife-twisting note, but she complimented me on my spelling. She is good at that, diffusing.
And my mother, if you have not met her, is also a judicious saver; she returned this note to me as an adult.
I don’t think it is fair you get to go to the baby shower and I don’t. The note was not so mean after all, just honest. I had drawn a stamp and written our address on the folded paper to try and make it look like something that had come in the mail. Official.
If only fourth-grade me would have known the lies I have told to avoid showers of all kinds as an adult. How I deeply dislike this public fawning. When I am at a literary reading, especially if I am the reader, I think pleasenoquestions pleasenoquestions.
What I didn’t know then was that my mom probably didn’t want to go to the damn baby shower either; she probably just wanted to have some time with her friends without a child tugging at her. She was right to keep sending me to my room.
In the first heat of being married, my husband, Joel, and I thought about kids. Just a little whisper, made of lust mostly. Here is where I am supposed to write that I love kids, and we really, really tried but infertility/age/health/whatever got in the way. Well, we didn’t try. What got in the way was me not wanting it. Once I wrote and published a whole book about a woman running from her marriage and her child.
Now I had my perfect quiet, my protagonist thought after she’d ditched her husband and her daughter and she was a zillion miles from the life she had signed up to be living.
I think about my father, alone with the shining new floors. Actual linoleum, not the vinyl flooring we have today, was made from linseed oil and ground cork and wood flour, a fancy name for sawdust.
I think about my mother, from whom I got my love of reading. Forty years we have been mother and daughter, and we still pass books back and forth.
I think of my brother, who is very good at helping people before they’ve had to go through the hassle of asking—years ago my friend said she found him in her yard, fixing the driver’s side mirror on her car after she’d been sideswiped. He passed her in town and noticed the damage and realized he had a mirror in his junk pile that could work with enough Bondo. He didn’t seem to want to chat or be thanked or really care what her opinion of the Bondo job was, he just didn’t want her to get pulled over and be asked a bunch of questions because of something stupid like a missing mirror.
She told me how sweet she thought it all was, but really, though my brother is actually kind, I knew he was more motivated by protecting her from the questions.
I get it.
I try to talk with my parents about their divorce sometimes because it annoys me. I’ll just say it: they’ve been split up for twenty years, but I don’t see why they can’t get back together. Truth is stranger than fiction, after all. They were in love once, and they made me, and they made my brother, Gabe. Gabriel, God’s messenger, and Wendy, just a name. Why not try again, besides the impossible obvious. I’ll bring a bag of walnuts and a sack of wood flour, my brother can just show up—I mean that I don’t want to assign him any responsibility in this fantasy because it’s mine, and fantasy is the right word. One thing my brother could do is he could gain some weight so his cheeks would get chubby like in our old photos. He was definitely the cuter one.
I’m chatting with my dad on the phone, and we are talking about Gabe. We are saying how proud we are of him because he’s turned out to be a very good father. There was a time when we weren’t sure how it would go.
I had to train my dad to talk on the phone. We’ve had geographic separation since the ’90s, so it has been worth the effort. I used to make a list of questions I could ask him to keep it going. Now he’s really good. Without a prompt, an hour will pass. Maybe more. He’s always been an interesting conversationalist, but he can do it on his cell now too.
Then I’m telling my dad that the next time he comes to Denver, there’s a noodle shop I want to take him to, and my dad is telling me about how when he was working at the sawmill on swing shift, he’d get home and Mom would go to her job or go to bed, and depending on the hour, he’d take me and Gabe up the hillside a little ways, and we’d make a campfire and cook some ramen or some beans or just hang out. I reach but I can’t remember this specifically, though I can imagine it, two little kids with dirt on their faces and the smell of pine and probably a dog around, probably the dog Hootch, if I have the timeline right, and a man showing his children how to lay the sticks over the tinder so they catch, showing them how to be careful with the matches, showing them the simple power of fire.
In those times we probably weren’t talking much. My brother and I were probably giggling and poking the embers. Dad was probably not alarmed at the poking because not much alarms him. Likely he had a beer. We were always best without other people around. Maybe a cow moos from the barn or something, maybe a rooster calls. Maybe we lie in grass around the fire and just listen to the way it crackles, and we don’t say anything.
I wish he’d brought his camera.
There are no photos of my mother as a child that I have ever seen. Her parents’ house burnt down twice.
Imagine her face when she has lost everything. Imagine her face the second time.
If you’ve not met my mother, another thing she is very good at is moving on. She’d probably be exceptional at Buddhism if she were into that kind of thing. (Some of her siblings did turn to religion.) What she taught her children was to go forward, always. What she taught her children is that the universe doesn’t owe you shit, so act accordingly.
My mother’s own mother died in broad daylight, driving past the town school when another car came barreling toward her—a suspected drunk but never caught and so no one really knows—on the wrong side of the road, and as my mother’s mother pulled to the side to avoid the oncoming vehicle, the embankment gave way, and she and her car careened down the hillside. I never knew her as a grandmother. I was a year old; my mother, twenty-five.
Her name was Eva.
My mother told me that once Eva made her a pleated skirt.
My mother wore the skirt to school, and she got sick all over and ruined it. She was a child. She’d mostly only ever had hand-me-downs as one of nine, the youngest of the daughters, and she was devastated in her new, wrecked skirt, and ashamed.
As an adult my mother would have known how much time, how much precious time it would have taken to pin and iron and stitch the pleats—pleats are cute but not easy to sew. I think she said the skirt was blue. She taught me to sew, though these days I don’t do much beyond mending.
Then her home was ash, and the skirt would have been lost anyway, so she moved on. Then her home was ash again, and it’s not like there’s anything else to do, so she moved on. Her children were screaming at the walnuts, and maybe all she wanted was quiet. Her marriage dissolved. Her son was not speaking to her for two years because of the divorce, and then he got a DUI and he finally called. Her daughter was in therapy when she told the story about the skirt. The morals of the stories were: get over it.
So maybe not a traditional Buddhist, but attachment is definitely not her deal. With my mother you are better off wrecking her carpet than screwing up her vegetable garden.
I believe her priorities are in the right place.
There’s a yearbook photo of her, long legs, long hair, playing basketball. She’s in midair.
There’s her senior picture—and she’s pretty. She’s got that particular ’70s look from rollers and mascara, and there’s this way her eyes shine.
After that there’s a photo of her on her wedding day, on the edge of a hotel bed in Idaho. My father took it and her eyes are shining again. And those legs, revealed by her short, maroon dress.
There’s an identical one of Dad—same day, same light, just a moment before or after hers—but he’s blurry. It’s 1974 and she’s not as used to operating the manual camera as he is.
Still, you can see his wide-legged, gray pants, his gray, patterned shirt.
It’s easy to tell that they are in love, and they are documenting themselves before there was a hashtag for it.
The next photos are a girl and a boy, married now, camping through northeastern Washington and southern Canada, and most photos are of the girl. My mother with a shotgun, looking coy. (It’s not her gun.) One of my father, pouring water from a stainless-steel can. They are making moonshine with a friend. They glow.
And then, half a decade later, a photo of another, much newer girl, tiny and red.
That one’s me.
As a writer I’ve had to learn to protect my time and my privacy. I work a regular, corporate job, and I do my best to be involved with my friends and family. I write in the time I can pull away from everyday life. I say no more than I say yes.
Writing—or painting, sculpting, composing—is solitary and it requires isolation. It’s also a form of privilege.
My mother used to get up at 4:30 in the morning because none of us was awake. It was the only time she could have to herself. She’d make coffee and I don’t know what else. Plan for her day. Read something. Sit and not have anyone touching her. Be alive without being asked endless questions.
Children, for all of their glitter and sweetness, their cheeks and tenderness, children are not gentle.
When we’d go on family vacations, driving the Pacific Northwest coast or venturing into the Cascades or the Rockies or the Tetons, my dad would set the timer on the camera to get a shot of the four of us. I remember the way he’d balance his Kodak on a rock or a tree branch and then run back toward us. Sometimes, in the frame, we’re all still, cheese smiles, and he’s just barely in motion or looking slightly the wrong way.
We grew up, though. My brother and I moved on from the dream of childhood, my parents moved on from the gloss of their young love.
It’s hard to predict what cracks a family apart, what’s recoverable and what’s not.
I’m in Colorado and Gabe is in California. It’s our parents who are closest together, in Washington, about two-and-a-half hours by car, two separate stops on Highway 97, not that they see each other. I think the last time they were in the same space together was in 2010 at my wedding in Las Vegas. They took a tequila shot together. Someone has the photo of it.
Sometimes my mother will tell me something, and then she’ll say, I don’t want this to show up in one of your stories.
I try to fill in for memories there are not photos for, and I’m the one who tries to organize mini-reunions (me, Gabe, Dad; me, Gabe, Mom), to varying degrees of success.
We’re all busy, I suppose.
And most of it does end up in my stories.
When I go to the home I grew up in, it’s a memory flood. There’s the blaze of stars at night—I miss that about the country. There’s the dirt road from town that’s terrifying for newcomers—the first time I took my husband, he wondered aloud why there was no guardrail. I don’t know, I said, probably no one wants to pay for it? My dad drove the school bus on that road for years. No one died, I happily report.
The aspen grove, the tamarack where we strung a swing. The cheat grass and sagebrush and knapweed.
Once my brother and I and the Sneeringer kids hiked up the hillside and we discovered bones.
We were so sure.
What else could it be, this large skeleton on the hillside.
It was a horse. It was a neighbor’s horse that had been injured in a fire and dead for months. My dad had shot the horse as a kindness and had dragged the carcass far enough out of range of dogs but not of children.
Why were we so excited and not scared by the bones?
The brutality of youth.
Of our quartet I was the most difficult. The red, mewling girl from my earliest photo, the carrot-topped kid until puberty turned my hair a calmer shade.
It was best that I left the house first. It would have been better if I’d left sooner (I was seventeen).
There are photos of me as a teenager, freckled and trying to cover it up with makeup, and later on, in my dad’s timed photos, I’m the one who always looks a little out of place, who looks like she’d rather be somewhere else but doesn’t quite have the guts to duck out of the frame.
We’re in Bend, Oregon. It’s summer in a mountain town, but the river is still capped with white.
I don’t so much sneak out of our hotel room as I just slip away. I walk along the shore for a while. I’m angry at my parents, irritated with my brother. Nothing specific. Just too much time together in our minivan, though now I can’t remember if we were on our way to somewhere or on our way home. I haven’t really thought it through, the way you don’t when you’re twelve or thirteen, and I’m not trying to run away or cause a panic. I just need a couple of minutes to myself, and I haven’t yet learned how to articulate it.
As an adult I can say, Hey, yeah, I’ll meet you there. Just need ten or fifteen to decompress first.
Luckily my mom saw me walking before they called the police.
What are you doing? she asked. But she knew what I was doing. She’d been up since 4:30 in the morning doing the same thing: getting some quiet. You scared us, she said.
Later we went to a movie. It was Waterworld, in retrospect a truly horrible film, but as family of introverts, we all loved it.
We especially loved the parts where Kevin Costner dives so deep into the sea no one can follow him because secretly he has gills. We knew how amazing it would be to stay submerged for so long, so out of reach, the only sound your own blood in your own ears.
My dad used to clear a circle of dirt with the tractor, and then Gabe and I would pool water on it until it was a passable ice rink.
Of all of us, I was the one who really loved to skate rather than it just being something to do in winter. The shimmer. The grate of blade on ice. I wasn’t working toward anything, wasn’t competing, but I’d take my skates down to our rink and turn on the light and hook up my little boombox and work out a routine to whatever my favorite song was.
I didn’t know how to jump, my back skate was awfully rocky, and I wasn’t even a good ice dancer, but I loved the solitude, and I was really, really good at the solitude.
My favorite photo on the rink is of me much younger than the attempts at pop music moves, when there was still enough water that we had a pond behind an earth dam that would freeze in winter. My snowsuit is red and white, and it has a heart on the chest. I’m doing my one best figure-skating move, which I have practiced and practiced.
I’m on point on my right foot, and I have just enough balance to get my left up and hook it on the top of my other foot’s boot. I’m leaning, arms raised over my head, making a curve with my little body.
In the background there are fenceposts and dry, wintertime grass and a haze of clouds. I’m posing, of course, and there’s no one else in the shot. My dad has clicked the shutter to capture me there, just before I fall.
In fiction there is the inevitability of plot. On page twenty-one, for example, a character turns to the teakettle or some other thing, and she knows she is going to leave her partner. The reader goes with her. The reader agrees this must happen. A house burns to the ground. A campfire is made.
If my family story were mapped out like a novel, it would be obvious we would unravel. There’s no way they could keep going with all that need for privacy, readers would say. With one bathroom. As the children got older. In a small town. As the world got older.
There’s foreshadowing with both the parents. At the book club: The blue skirt—the mother already knows she will become a person who doesn’t hold onto things. The father documents because he understands these photos will be what he has to remember this part of life with.
And the children! They are kind enough, in their own ways, but difficult. The daughter is angry and doesn’t know why. The son lacks direction because it’s a unique kind of hard to be the last to arrive into any family.
I’m talking to my mom, and she is wondering how Gabe’s visit to see me in Denver went.
I make a crack about how he accused me of getting him drunk.
“So you had a good time,” she says.
“Yes. It was so nice to see him,” I say.
I don’t tell her the part about when we’ve cleaned out all of the beer in the house and much of the liquor, and I’m kind of wobbly and I’m like, Hey, Gabe, hey—hey, you know that thing people say about how your sibling is your first real friend? And he’s like, Yeah. And then we are loaded and laughing at something and catching that moment of being on the hillside with Dad, or being in the car on vacation together, or listening to Mom read us The Chronicles of Narnia or Little House on the Prairie—the entire series of both, out loud.
He is my brother. He is the person in the universe whose DNA spirals in the way that is most similar to mine. We will always have this closeness, whether we want it or not.
After my mother lost her own mother, she said it took only another three years for her father to drink himself to death. I remember him, vaguely, but I can’t imagine this loss. We all try to prepare ourselves for what it means to lose family, and already I’ve had so much more time than she ever got.
Later Mom texts me, You know how happy it makes me to know my children are friends.
And I’m like, Yeah.
My brother calls me from California. His partner has packed up a truck with their four-year-old daughter and is headed toward Washington.
I ask him what he thinks this means for their relationship, and I tell him that he doesn’t sound all that upset.
He misses his daughter, of course, and he’s clear that the immediate thing that must be figured out is how to co-parent.
In the meantime, he says, it will be nice to have a week or two to himself.
It’s not often but there are times when I’ll wake up very early in the morning, and for one flash I can hear Dad snoring, smell Mom’s coffee, feel Gabe in the next room, dreaming. Even when I’ve blinked and I know I’m in my own bed in Denver, I don’t move.
I listen for the cows, the chickens. Try to catch the scent of hay or ice.
A great writer might know how to twist the plot so it knits the family back together in a believable way, and a great photographer might know how to tilt the lens to make us look like we are leaning toward one another, no matter what angle the shot is from.
When I wake into this space, I think that in addition to an overflowing bag of walnuts and the roll of lino, I’ll bring a list of wrongs we can stuff into the woodstove. I’ll bring matches and a pleated skirt. I’ll bring a file to sharpen the skates. I’ll bring my old letter to my mother. I’ll bring ramen and beans. Bondo. Film and fresh batteries. The bones of one dead horse.
And we’ll put everything on a pile in the middle of the kitchen, and we’ll burn the house down once, and then we’ll burn the house down twice.
My dad’s camera and his solo remodels will be destroyed, but it feels like the only way to start over.
Maybe we could make enough ash for a big batch of concrete.
We might love rebuilding with thick, cement walls.
Imagine our faces.
For years we did not have any digital clocks in our home. In third grade my lessons included bringing home a paper clock face so I could learn to tell time.
My mom, endlessly patient with spelling words, a saint when it came to learning lines for school plays, incredibly tolerant of listening to my invented or half-learned songs, always game to read a story I’d written, drew the line at time-telling. She needed, she said later, to be able to tell me to go to bed when I was tired and not have an argument about whether it was actually bedtime or not.
I would not learn to properly tell time until I was much older, and to this day I do more finger-counting than the average adult.
My parents, I know, tried their best and they didn’t fail. We’ve grown closer in our separations. I’ll admit to being the gossip of the family, and there’s very little I won’t discuss. We didn’t used to be so frank. We were too close together. We couldn’t.
I suppose we made a trade. A divorce and three states. We’ve all run a little, in different ways, but have also figured out how to unfold, like the character in my first novel. Mostly in the ways that we’ve gone on to make our lives; our partners and our spouses and our friends leave us alone when we need it. Give us our space, our perfect quiet.
There are new photos now. My brother’s daughter, her grin and sly look. My mother and I on our way to Pike’s Peak, the valley stretched out behind us. My father fishing in Mexico when, for once, someone else is on the other side of his camera and captures beluga whales breaching around him. My husband and I taking a single selfie shot in Spain because we suppose we should record at least one image of ourselves, in the ruins of civilization, on such a beautiful day. The open blooms of my mother’s flowers that she texts to me to admire and that I am jealous of, her thumb greener than mine. The photos of home that Dad texts when he’s buried in snow.
It has been two decades since we were all under one roof, fighting over the bathroom, fighting over the dishes, fighting because domesticity is a thankless labor, and everyone always feels like they are doing the most work.
My brother and I try to collude sometimes, scheming that if we lived in the same town—or even the same state—we could lure Mom to us, especially because that would mean she’d have more time with her granddaughter. We’d happily take Dad too, but I doubt my father will ever leave the house; it’s too big and too much work for him, but he made it from his own hands. He’ll just keep working on it, sealing leaky windows, patching the siding, repairing the tin roof. Gabe and I don’t blame him. How could we, growing up sheltered by the structure he built.
Our family fractured but we did not break. We can still close our eyes and feel the bliss of solitude in the deep water of a bad ’90s movie, and we can know what it means to us to be linked while being apart.
In their wedding photos my parents have so much hope, a hope underpinned by love. It is painted on their faces, and even an economy hotel room on the Idaho border cannot dampen the halo around them.
The four of us are held together by this ring of light. We are bound by it, still.