It happens to us all: we think we’ve settled into an identity, a self, and then out of nowhere and with great force, the traces of our parents appear to us, in us—in mirrors, in gestures, in reaction and reactivity, at weddings and funerals, and in troubled thoughts that crouch in dark corners of our minds. In this masterful collection of new essays, the apple looks at the tree. Twenty-five writers deftly explore a trait they’ve inherited from a parent, reflecting on how it affects the lives they lead today—how it shifts their relationship to that parent (sometimes posthumously) and to their sense of self.Apple, Tree’s all-star lineup of writers brings eloquence, integrity, and humor to topics such as arrogance, obsession, psychics, grudges, table manners, luck, and laundry. Contributors include Laura van den Berg, S. Bear Bergman, John Freeman, Jane Hamilton, Mat Johnson, Daniel Mendelsohn, Kyoko Mori, Ann Patchett, and Sallie Tisdale, among others. Together, their pieces form a prismatic meditation on how we make fresh sense of ourselves and our parents when we see the pieces of them that live on in us.
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LAURA VAN DEN BERG
My mother saw her first psychic when she was a young woman, nineteen or twenty, in her hometown of Nashville. Her father drove her over to a place in East Nashville, where she remembers a dramatic-looking woman (big earrings, a clamor of bracelets) swinging open the door. She can't remember why she sought the help of a psychic in the first place, only that this one had come recommended by her hairdresser, who she trusted. If pressed, my mother imagines she was seeking help with boy trouble — back then, that was always the story. When I express surprise that my grandfather was a willing participant — he was a dairy farmer and not the type to put much stock in the otherworldly — my mother reminds me that he loved to drive. He would take me on any kind of adventure if a car was involved. My mother can't recall what she and her first psychic discussed, and while she never went back to this woman in East Nashville, nevertheless, the visit opened for my mother a portal into a world of mediums and predictors, a world that would captivate her for many years to come, a world she would pass on to me. When I ask my mother for a why, she tells me — People have been trying to make sense out of chaos for millennia. That is what you hope a psychic can do.
Writing a novel can feel like an attempt to make sense of chaos, so perhaps it's not a coincidence that I got my first tarot reading in Key West, during a summer spent at an artist's colony. I was struggling mightily with my first novel, and at the height of my creative troubles, I found a man named Ron Augustine during the sunset celebration at Mallory Square, after I had read an article about him in National Geographic. Ron Augustine was easy to spot because he conducted his readings on the pier, holding a very large white parasol in one hand and turning the cards with the other. That summer marked six years of work on my first novel, and instead of the breakthrough I longed for, I kept hitting impasse after impasse. The book was under contract: I was starting to think I would never finish and would have to repay the advance. I told myself that I could live with either outcome; somehow I would figure out a way forward, even if I had to give the money back. I just wanted someone to tell me how it was all going to end. I could not stand the not knowing for a moment longer.
I waited in line to speak with Ron Augustine, and when it was my turn, I sat in a folding chair across from him. He laid the cards out on a small table and surveyed my fates. He told me that I had been engaged in a tough struggle for years and now that struggle was almost over. I was close, but I needed to keep pushing and I needed to be braver — braver than I had ever been before. I paid him, thanked him, and then cried while waiting in line for fried clams.
The next morning, I woke at dawn and set out for the ocean. From a dock, I dove into the water, and when I came up for air, the solution was right there, clear as a familiar song. I returned to my studio and deleted the last hundred pages of my novel, the section that had been giving me the most difficulty. I threw out my flash drives and emptied the trash on my laptop; I worked to eradicate any trace of those old pages. This was what I understood "brave" to mean: release what is not working and what will never work and make something new, something better, in that empty space. Deep down, I had wanted to make this move when I first arrived at the residency, but I was too scared. I rewrote those hundred pages in three weeks. I submitted the book to my editor on time; I did not have to repay the money after all. All the while, I wondered what would have happened had I not thought to seek out Ron Augustine, if a stranger with a parasol had not told me exactly what I needed to hear, at the exact right moment in time.
My mother believes mediums are better with the past than with the future. As an example, she cites a visit to Cassadaga, the famed medium community in Florida. In the seventies, my mother saw a psychic in Cassadaga who told her that her first cousin's wife had committed suicide — true — and that this dead woman now had a message for my mother. The problem is: Most people don't see psychics for information about the past. In Cassadaga, the information about the suicide was impressive, a testament to the medium's powers, but it was also information my mother already knew. Most people — certainly my mother, certainly me — are hungry for the predictive. For a glimpse into the future, which is in a sense a glimpse into the forbidden, for to know our own futures is a kind of power we are not supposed to have.
The best medium my mother says she ever saw was a man in California — except she never actually saw him. He was a telephone psychic, and for a period of five years, she spoke to him every four months. During this period, my parents were going through a painful, lengthy divorce, and my mother swears this man in California could predict what would happen in the courtroom, what my father's next move would be. My mother says that she hadn't wanted to hear things you could hear from your therapist or a friend — hang in there, one day at a time. She had wanted answers. She had wanted to know.
Alas, the story of the man in California does not have a happy ending. He was diagnosed with early onset dementia and lost his powers. My mother consulted a string of psychics afterward, hungry for the answers to keep coming, and felt that they all failed her.
A family story: My father was said to have ESP for a time, back when I was still a small child. Not psychic abilities per se, but a sixth sense, an ability to see several moves ahead — to predict how the weather would turn, what a person was going to do. Then one morning he was carrying an armful of dress shirts down the stairs. He stepped on a sleeve and somersaulted to the ground. The fall knocked him out, dislocated his shoulder, and after he came to in the ER, he never had ESP again.
The bottom line: Powers of all kinds are delicate. You never know what will make them leave.
In 2014 I was on the road a lot. At some point, I decided to embark on a little project where I would visit tarot card readers in each new destination. Probably I should have sought out a therapist instead, but I wanted my own answers and this project seemed like a shortcut to getting them.
At the time, I was bouncing around between various campuses, always between home and some other place. My husband and I were spending too much time apart. My father was ill. Out of nowhere, or so it seemed, I had been beset by crippling flying anxiety. I was in a state of perpetual motion, moving too fast to absorb much of anything.
Over the course of this experiment, I had tarot readings in Portland, Maine; New Orleans; LA; and Perth, Australia. The longest reading: sixty minutes. The shortest: ten. All the readers were women except for Ron Augustine in Key West. The readings cost somewhere between ten and sixty dollars, usually paid in cash. At the start of a reading, I always wanted to go straight to the bad stuff. That is the fiction writer in me, I think: Let's get right to the trouble.
In LA, the tarot reader told me a friend from childhood recently came back into my life and that this person did not wish me well. Be careful, she warned. I nodded because I did not know how to explain that I had very few friends in childhood and I was not in touch with any of them.
In Perth, the medium's address was a storefront for a crystals shop, the air inside clouded with dust and incense. When I told the owner I was looking for a reading, she bolted the front door and led me down a flight of narrow, winding steps, the ceiling treacherously low. I followed her into the basement and then another small room with a cement floor; she bolted this door behind us too. If she had been a man, I would have run screaming. We sat at a small table; she lit a cigarette. She chain-smoked through the entire reading and described the state of my life with alarming accuracy. At the end, she told me that I knew what I needed to do, and when I was ready, I would do those things.
During this experiment, I went to Chicago but did not get a reading. I only had so much time and decided to go to a museum instead.
Having felt misled by psychics during her divorce, my mother remains disillusioned with the whole enterprise. I'm done with them, she's told me time and time again, and yet I recently learned her disillusionment did not stop her from phoning a psychic recommended to her by a fitness instructor. This psychic was located in East Nashville too, not far from my mother's first encounter decades earlier, and she reports that absolutely none of his predictions have come to pass.
Aside from the man in California, my mother now thinks the most effective mediums she ever spoke to were not meant for people, but for animals. She reminds me of a family friend's story: They had a horse who started misbehaving, for reasons no trainer or vet could understand. Finally the family friend called a horse psychic, who reported that this horse was being driven mad by a ringing sound in her stall, like an alarm that wouldn't quit. What ringing? they thought at first, and then they remembered: The horse's stall had been changed, just before the bad behavior started, to next door to the barn office. The owners went and stood in the stall, and every time the office phone went off, a shrill ringing sounded out. Soon they could see why the phone had been driving the horse mad.
I wonder if the difference is dealing in the now versus attempting to predict the future, I say to my mother. People call animal communicators because their dog won't stop barking at the mailperson or because their cat seems depressed. The aim is diagnostic, not predictive, and perhaps the predictive is the problem with the whole medium enterprise, when it comes to people — or the problem with the particular feature of my inheritance. My mother and I want a key to the future. We want exactly what human consciousness is not designed to offer. If we know, we think we can prepare. A practical impulse, in some ways, if executed through a highly impractical means.
I don't feel disillusioned about mediums in the way my mother does, but in an effort to save money and to take fewer shortcuts, I haven't spoken to a psychic or tarot reader in a couple of years. My flying anxiety worsened, and then anxiety began to take root in other areas of my life, and my father got sicker — so I sought out a real therapist and began to do the hard work of dealing with the past and the now and the future.
One point of clarification — I haven't consulted a medium meant for humans in a couple of years. This spring, I consulted an animal communicator for my dog, in an effort to understand why my otherwise friendly running companion would bark at runners when he passed them on the trails. According to the animal communicator, my dog finds barking at runners "highly satisfying" — he knows I dislike this behavior and yet he has no plans to change. Some things are too fun to give up, he reportedly told the animal communicator. And when you put it that way, who could blame him? My dog also mentioned that he enjoys getting up on all the furniture except for a chair in the bedroom — the legs wobble and he slides around, once he even fell, a statement that startles me to my feet with its accuracy.
When I press my mother for specifics on the subject of psychics, she admits that she threw out all her notes from her readings during her last move. I never took notes during my own readings, even though I have a bad memory, another trait I share with my mother. But I keep circling back to the idea of the diagnostic versus the predictive, the now versus the future — and how maybe it's not so much that we want to know the future, for to truly know could be a grim and burdensome power, but rather we want confirmation for what we suspect might be true. Making big decisions can be so lonely, after all, and there is a special kind of power in a stranger telling you what you already know, in the deepest well of yourself. Just keep going. You know what you need to do. To hear a stranger, whether it be because they are a very canny reader of people or because they are in conversation with the divine, repeat back to you the truth that you have been hesitant to trust, the truth that you have tried to ignore or maybe even bury — but can't for a moment longer.CHAPTER 2
I've lived in a garage, a dormitory, a screened-in porch, and more than one basement. I've owned three houses. After my divorce and the divestiture of common property, I moved into a small second-floor apartment in a large complex of handsome brick buildings originally used as military family housing. Here we have hardwood floors, tiny kitchens, big trees, lousy wiring.
Hardly anyone in the complex draws their curtains. I walk my dog in the evening, and behind the disguise of his slow rooting in the shrubbery, I get brief, cropped shots of other lives. A deer head with an impressive rack mounted on a wall painted navy blue. Two women at a dining table, heads close. A father drilling his kids in calisthenics, barking like a sergeant. A man practicing piano, the faint, rapid scales barely audible through the glass. A young couple, so unformed they seem to be made of putty, pushing a pair of Chihuahuas in a baby stroller down the walk. A dour woman sitting on the steps of the building where I get my mail, smoking. She refuses to move so I can enter; her profound distaste for the world seems immutable, genetic.
Below me, in #2, a couple approaches punk's middle age: she has ropy dreadlocks, and he has a ropy beard, and both have a lot of ink. Through the windows, I can see the Tibetan prayer flags, the bicycles, the aquarium. Sometimes I hear hammering below, and their bulldog yaps every time I pass the door. In six years as neighbors, we have learned each other's names and exchange occasional comments about the weather. Once I helped them jump their car battery, but I have never been in their apartment. When our basement storage units are broken into, I wake them up early in the morning with the news. It is a voyeur's dream come true, the storage units open, spilling out contents: A dishwasher. Bicycles. An artificial Christmas tree. Dog crate. Old skis. An antique mirror. We pad around the mess in our pajamas, in our sudden, brief intimacy, sorting out what is theirs and what is mine. And what is mine to know.
My parents live in the same house for thirty years. It is built for them by his father, next door to the house where my father grew up. Eventually they buy that house too, and then two more on the block. She teaches at the elementary school we attend, and my father teaches at the high school. My mother knows more about everyone in the neighborhood than she would like to know. And everyone in town knows who we are, knows our lives. Thinks they know.
I babysit for the couple next door until my grandfather dies and the family is evicted so my grandmother can move in. She spends every afternoon in our living room. Her sisters live up the hill with my ancient cousins, and my mother hosts every family dinner; our relatives fill two tables and use every dish in the house. Twice a year, we drive several hours south to visit my mother's family. She sits with her mother and her sister at the dining table; they bend their heads together, relaxed and girlish, laughing for hours. My mother, giggling. Then we drive back.
My life is irregular, with an abundance of solitude. I work odd hours. I leave for a few days, or a few weeks. I sometimes wonder what the neighbors in #2 make of me, what the young couple with the baby stroller or the man shouting cadence to his sons assume about me, the woman in #4: older, alone, lives with a dog, ducks out in her pajamas every morning for the newspaper. I doubt they notice the lopsided, oblique state of my life. And I always close the curtains at night. There's a good chance they don't notice me at all. Their passing glances are nothing more than that, which is all I give to them.
My peeking in, this urge to see what's hidden through knotholes and between unused curtains — like a lot of things we prefer to think are obscure, this one's fairly obvious. All those crowded family dinners. Decades later, I keep a lot of secrets and try to ferret out everyone else's. I strive not to be entirely known, even when I am aching for it. Sister, cousin, neighbor: our lives are filled with people to whom we are nothing else. To whom we are set in stone and time from the moment we meet. And I don't really want to know their lives; I want to imagine them, to pretend I know, to fill in gaps and guess at meaning. To write their stories, however wrong the details.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Apple, Tree"
Copyright © 2019 Lise Funderburg.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Lise Funderburg Predictions Laura van den Berg Curtains Sallie Tisdale Lies My Parents (Never but Maybe Should’ve) Told Me Shukree Hassan Tilghman Better Angels Clifford Thompson The Only Light We’ve Got Angelique Stevens Household Idols Avi Steinberg Just Say the Word Lizzie Skurnick All Knotted Up Dana Prescott Sisters Ann Patchett One Man’s Poison Kyoko Mori Unlived Lives Laura Miller A Measure of Perversity Marc Mewshaw Off, Off, Off, Off, Off Daniel Mendelsohn What We Keep Donna Masini My Story about My Mother Mat Johnson Never Have Just One Boss Susan Ito Spending the Sparkle Jane Hamilton Around the Table Lauren Grodstein This Truth about Chaos John Freeman No Indifferent Place Carolyn Ferrell And Niriko Makes Four Lolis Eric Elie Fragments from the Long Game Kate Carroll de Gutes Self-Made Men Leland Cheuk The Nut Doesn’t Fall Far from the Fucking Nut Tree S. Bear Bergman The Feeding Gene Karen Grigsby Bates Acknowledgments Contributors