#Lessons Learned from #UmbertoEco: Like this character? Tough tamales, I’ll kill him. Why? Because I can. Mwa ha ha!

mediaLast Time, on Jean Lee’s World…

To be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went.

~*~

Now: This is the second step, and the more irritating of the two at that.

Death is a natural for the mystery. Death is itself a mystery, after all. Being a daughter of faith, I learned that death is but a door, a turning at the crossroads. All reach this turning when God says it’s time. Since the birth of my daughter I have seen four important people of my life take that turn: my father-in-law, my grandfather, my grandmother, my father. One year after another, Death’s crossing led my family away from me. The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.

So when it comes to death in a fictional world, I do not take it lightly. In fact, I am infuriated when an author does. Like Eco.

Yes, Eco.

“But Jean, it’s a mystery. People die in mysteries ALL the time.” Well duh. My all-time favorite tv show is Murder, She Wrote, for cryin’ out loud. Once I started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I lost myself in the intrigues of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, P.D. JamesEllis Peters, and Elizabeth George.

Yes. In a mystery, someone dies. A bunch, even.

But those deaths are still not taken lightly. At the very least, those deaths serve the story, and press it forward. Justice is sought, and usually served. If justice is not served, there is at least some sort of reason to answer why.

Does Eco have such deaths? Oh, yes. A number of monks die in The Name of the Rose due to their involvement with something sinister. Their deaths work with the story. Eco even seems to relish the foretelling of their murders, which…eh. A little foreshadowing is fine, now and again, such as when Ado alludes to a future tragedy in the midst of a religious debate:

Perhaps I made a mistake: if I had remained on guard, many other misfortunes would have been averted. but I know this now; I did not know it then.

Or he’ll stick his foreshadowing into the chapter heading to hook the reader:

MATINS: In which a few hours of mystic happiness are interrupted by a most bloody occurrence.

Yes, it worked on me every time, blast him.

Yes, I’m still infuriated. Not about that–about the fates of two particular characters.

First, the girl. A poor villager smuggled in by monks for sexual favors and paid for with food. The only physical girl character in the novel (as opposed to female saints or witches), our narrator, the novice Adso, discovers her in the kitchen waiting for whomever has bought her that night. But his entry interrupts that, and they…well Adso’s far more poetic about sex than I could ever be. A few chapters later she is discovered by an inquisitor and branded a witch. Adso pleads with his master, William of Baskerville, to save her. He shakes his head. Nothing to be done. She is, as he puts it, “burnt flesh.”

Not that we see her death. We’re just told it will eventually happen in some other town. Adso never sees her after the arrest, and she quickly fades from importance.

I gritted my teeth over this one. So, the character was created to help propel seedy events. Growth of Adso’s character. Expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations back then. Okay. Sure. But her death doesn’t matter? Even the screenwriters of the film version didn’t care for this, and had the girl be saved from the pyre. Saved or not, at least give the girl a chance to finish her life’s arc on the stage instead of off.

But the “death” that REALLY gets me is way, way in the beginning of the novel, with one of the first major characters we meet: Ubertino. An older man, very learned, experiences with the warring Pope and the Emperor, friend of William of Baskerville, and now in hiding for his life awaiting the secret religious debate to take place at this very abbey. At one point in their first conversation, Adso gets a little freaked out by Ubertino’s behavior:

At that moment, terrified, I thought Ubertino was in the power of a kind of holy frenzy, and I feared for his reason. Now, with the distance of time, knowing what I know–namely, that two years later he would by mysteriously killed in a German city by a murderer never discovered–I am all the more terrified, because obviously that evening Ubertino was prophesying.

Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is that there’s no telling who will be killed, when, with what, or why. Because Adso is writing this account years later, we know he survives, but that’s it. We don’t know if William of Baskerville lives through this murder. We only know that one monk has died under suspicious circumstances, but the book is massive (my edition is 538 pages long), so there HAS to be at least another death. Who will it be? Readers want to be invested in the characters. Sure, they want them to live. That makes them read on: so they live.

What we DON’T like is being told: “Sure, this guy will live. For now. He dies later, so you know. His efforts are pretty pointless here. But hey, he lives through this!”

Then what’s the point?

Why should I care about him, if I know he’s going to live through this ordeal only to die for no reason offstage? Any suspense surrounding this character is gone. That means the mystery around this character is gone.

And the last thing a mystery can afford to lose, is mystery.

 

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Mrs. Fix-It

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My living room is a perpetual kill-floor.

“Mommy, fix Windlifter’s tail-fin?”

“No, it’s broken.”

“Mommy, fix the ladder truck?”

“Fix Dipper’s wing?”

“Fix the picture?”

“Fix it?”

“Fix it?”

“Can you fix it tonight?”

“No, it’s BROKEN.”

Bits of car, shards from a thrown plane. Train tracks strewn everywhere. Torn pictures, colored and blank. Books, stepped on, slid on, and therefore ripped.

Of course, this all comes from having twin boys who think biting and clawing are typical play. If something CAN break, it SHOULD, and because it is theirs it MUST be fixed. To accept something’s broken is to accept they did something wrong. Not the easiest task for a three-year-old.

And who is expected to fix whatever “it” may be?

Me.

~*~

My father was a Mr. Fix-It. Called away to the hospital to stabilize an uproar between family and staff. Between family and family. Called merely to sit, and to listen to those whose families act like they’re dead. Called away to sit, and to listen, and to attempt a bridging between those determined to tear their own families apart.

The demands on fixing didn’t stop with his vocation.

My aunt’s husband died a few years ago from excessive drinking and smoking. Surgery after surgery, warning after warning, and he never stopped. Many of us saw his death as inevitable. Not my aunt.

Life wasn’t quite so insane for me back then: Biff tucked himself quietly away in the back of my womb while Bash somersaulted to his heart’s content. Toddler Blondie loved to be with her Grandma and Grandpa, so we often visited on weekends. After a particularly busy morning outside Blondie crashed in the guest room; the rest of us settled for a quiet read/work time in the basement.

Then my aunt called. Mom put it on speaker, because apparently no phone call was private in that house. “I just got the autopsy report, and…” sobs.

This is my mother’s sister.

My mother hands her off to Mr. Fix-It, and goes to the laundry room.

I get up to go, but no–stay, Jean. You’ll wake Blondie.

So I sit, and listen to my aunt go on and on about why no one told her it was this bad, why her husband didn’t say anything. Dad all the while gently telling her no one could tell Uncle D what to do, Uncle D always had a strong faith, and on and on.

My mother occasionally comes by the phone, but doesn’t take over the conversation until my aunt’s sobs have died down. Until the fixing’s done.

Dad looks at me, shakes his head. Goes back to writing his sermon.

~*~

Being the stay-at-home-parent has made me the Mrs. Fix It of my family. All the ripped/cracked/frosted/peed on items are brought to me. When Bash gets over a tantrum, he comes to me to “clean his face.” Even if Bo is home, I’m the one sought. And if I plan to leave the home, Bo seeks me out to fix up the children’s schedule for him so he knows what to do and when.

~*~

Every family has a Fixer, the one who maintains the connections, is sought for improvements, changes.

Somehow, Dad’s death put his duties on me.

I didn’t feel it at first, overwhelmed by my own grief.

Then came the phone calls from my mother.

Grief counseling was a waste of time, she said. She wouldn’t talk to another pastor, because no one else was Dad.

I have two brothers: one who lives near her, the other a pastor elsewhere in the country. My mother and I have never been bound with more than the ties created by Christian duty.

Yet she talked to me. Sobbed to me. And I never, ever had the right thing to say.

Some souls are so…so rich with love and faith that when they are removed, it is a literal chasm in your emotional and spiritual self. I don’t know if, being my father’s daughter, my mom expected me to somehow replace Dad. I don’t know if, now that Dad was gone, she thought we could finally have a relationship. I don’t know. I’ve never known my mom, and in all the talks in tears I still don’t know her. Every attempt I made at comfort or encouragement was not what she wanted to hear, at least from me. So eventually, she stopped calling.

Then came the messages: friends of my parents, relatives of my father. At any given family gathering or run-in with friends I am the one who’s asked: “How’s your mom? Is she seeing anyone?” And all I can give are platitudes: “up and down.” “good days and bad days.” Facebook messages pop up from people I haven’t seen in years, wondering how she is. I am sought to maintain the connections. I am expected to Fix This, All of This.

~*~

I sit on the floor in my sons’ room. Shades still drawn. Dark, quiet, since the boys are happily watching their favorite trains.

Quiet but for my sobs.

There came a point where all I could see were expectations unfulfilled. Of progress dumped out onto the floor, and broken, again, to be fixed, AGAIN, and how come you can’t fix it why can’t you mommy FIX it Mommy FIX IT

And there’s nothing I can do.

Tomorrow I will leave the house, schedule neatly written and left on the kitchen counter for Bo, and pull up to an office building. Walk in. State I have an appointment.

Tomorrow I will go up to someone who’s never met me, and lay it all out. All the broken pieces, the twisted old bits that used to work until they were trampled one too many times.

Tomorrow I will ask someone else to help Fix It.

Me.

 

 

Strange Grief

As desperation mounted in the search of Where Can’t Biff and Bash Reach Yet, the hutch felt like a safe haven. Shelves at my eye level, and a long wide ledge higher than that for sticking the drumsticks and plastic tools they use on each other’s heads. Candles were shoved in there, writing utensils, sharp things and long things that could become weapons. Even Blondie started shoving toys up there, or asking Bo and I to stick such’n’such race car “way up high where my brothers can’t get it.”

Then my boys discovered the joy in ladder-building. Nothing is safe on any edge ANYwhere.

Thank God wee arms can’t reach too far. To create more space in the depths of the hutch, I dump piles of papers and old toys from the hutch shelf onto the table. Blondie is happily surprised in finding an old magnetic dress-up set she thought lost months ago. Then: “Mommy, what’s this?” She holds out a blank card.

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Cheery thing. Blue-white check, two pastel, happy owls sharing a sparkly red heart. “Whoo’s nicer than grandparents like you?” “Nobody, that’s whoo!”

I take it, primly set it to the side. “It’s nothing.”

Bash notices. “Owls! Two owls! They are hugging!” I rip it from his hands before he can bend it. Primly set it aside again. Glare at my son for daring to bend a nothing.

Biff looks up from the Tinkerbell math game to see what the fuss is all about. “W.H. O. O. Spells? Spell?” Very keen to learn, that one.

I have to answer, don’t I? “What’s an owl say?”

Bash, voice high and syrupy-sweet: “Hoot hoot!”

“That’s what it spells.” Which of course it doesn’t. I look at the garbage can, the card, the garbage…

Blondie goes on tip-toe to give the card another once-over. “But what’s it for?”

“Valentine’s Day.” I can’t help but look outside at all the raking we’ve yet to do. Now that Bo found some kid-sized rakes, the kids can work with me for a change and clean up our yard before November gives out.

“What’s Valentine’s Day?”

“You know what it is, Blondie.” Why am I getting so heated about this? But I am. I snatch a cookbook from Bash when his only crime is touching the cover.

“Why was it in there?” She asks, pointing at the hutch.

“One. Two. Three hearts.” Biff pokes the card with his pudgy finger.

How did he get it down?!

I yank it away and just…hold it.

“M-o-m.”

“Yes. Blondie.”

“It’s Thanksgiving time, not Valentine’s Day time.”

“I know.”

“So why do we have that?” She points to the card. The entire planet is fixated on this one card and the weight of this, of IT, almost makes me answer:

Mommy got your grandma and grandpa a card for Valentine’s Day, but forgot to send it, because Mommy always forgets things, forgets little things and big things, and then Grandpa died. So now she can’t send it, because it says ‘grandparents,’ and the merest mention of Grandpa makes Grandma and Mommy cry, and we don’t want to do that to Grandma, do we? Yes, Mommy’s crying, let her cry.

Bash shoves Biff off the chair for a shot at the Tinkerbell math game. The distraction gives me just enough time to dodge the falling weight and say, “Because we can’t send it until another Valentine’s Day.”

Satisfied, Blondie returns to her prodigal toy. I scold Bash, he whines, “Go on timeout! Go to my room!” and he does so with the flair of a teenage girl. Biff discovers a raisin I missed in yesterday’s clean-up and tries to eat it.

I know I didn’t answer the question.

Hell, I can’t even answer the question for myself.

Why keep it? Why not throw it away?

I see that card, and I see the last chance I had at sharing a bit of love, of appreciation, with my father before his heart failure. I see the last chance stuck in a pile of papers like it was nearly two years ago. It was lost and forgotten then. I seem to lose it now, on purpose, forget it on purpose, just to remind myself of what I didn’t do.

My grief demands strange pieces to linger in the here and now. My father’s Facebook feed still shows up online. His handwriting on random post-it notes in books I borrowed long ago, or that Mom’s returned since then. His voice in a recordable storybook. I cry whenever my daughter opens it. I sometimes wish my sons would erase it, cast his ghost out of this house. Yet how dare I wish to destroy what is a warm reminder of happiness from my daughter’s past. How dare I.

I shove the card into the drawer with other cards—forgotten baby congrats, retirement wishes. Out of sight, out of mind. But never out of me.

The Need for Place

Old Streich Land 6

I walked through hunting grounds on a frigid April morning. This used to be a farm I looked upon often from the cemetery, where my grandparents are buried. It is an old cemetery, as you can see by the stones, and the church itself has been locked away to the world for decades. I would look upon those broken stones and that gaping maw of a tree as a child and wonder if the stillness in the day truly continued into the night.

 

Why do I feel drawn to these places? My grandmother’s death was the first major loss I experienced as a child. It also helped me realize how much I depended on my grandparents for stability in the world.

When you’re a preacher’s kid, your allegiance is to your church. You go to the church’s school and hang out with other church kids. The town is to be held at a distance, what with all its heathens and *gasp* Catholics.

Yet even in the church, I felt held at arm’s length from everyone. The Powers That Be considered my dad to be something of a problem solver, so every few years he was sent to a new church to deal with frictions inside the church or between the church and the community. Every few years we had to pack up, say goodbye to people we were just barely beginning to know, and walk to the front of yet another church and be stared at by hundreds of people as the “and family” of the new pastor package. It’s hard to become a part of something when you’re set apart from the get-go.

My grandparents, however, never moved. For years, I walked with Grandpa to the same park and fed ducks. Every summer I dragged my feet behind Grandma to the same craft store so she could sift through dress patterns. (Note to Craft Stores: put something to do by those blastedly huge pattern catalogs!) We grilled out at their house every Fourth of July and parked on the same mosquito-addled hillside for fireworks. My grandparents knew contentment through place in their community, and with every visit, I knew it, too.

When Grandma died, they buried her in this small rural cemetery, not far from the open-mouthed tree. After the burial, my mother pointed across the street to a hollow yellow brick house. “That’s the Streich farm, your grandma’s.” I stopped listening after “grandma’s.” When you’re twelve, you don’t think much about cousins twice removed or however that works. You just hear that something else was once a part of your family’s place. I looked upon the fields of corn, the fallow lots of grasses, and inside made it mine. I imagined that land during my years in boarding school, where we learned to tie ourselves to God and prepare to move across the world on His Whim. I wanted that house and its fields. Let God maneuver other people about like game pieces. I put my time in. Let me have place.

Then they tore down the house and turned it into wild lands for hunters.

 

I don’t blame the Streich relative, however distant, for selling to the Department of Forest and Wildlife. At least the land won’t be buried under concrete and strip malls. It’s acquired a new beauty in this wild phase, with hidden pools, peculiar clumps of trees and shrubs, and grasses tall enough to hide wolves. The land may never physically be mine, but I can wander through it, touch its soil, and imagine, for a while, what it means to have place.

Writer’s Music: Thomas Newman

lemonysnicket_soundtrackNewman’s work throughout this album fulfill several needs for the children’s writer: you have the quirky theme for Olaf (a personal favorite). A quiet, music-box like quality for children. Crazy and proud themes for the different relatives the orphans meet. Newman’s got a delightful uniqueness for every setting the Baudelaire Orphans encounter. I was torn one which track to write about, actually, because Newman’s score has helped me with character development and plot drive. Today, I will focus more on the plot angle.

“The Letter that Never Came” is a beautiful balance between strings and piano. It portrays hope and apprehension all it once—just the mix one experiences when watching doctors move about a child’s sick bed. I write this scene from the human pet’s perspective; she stays close to her troll master while they work, desperate to hear good news of any kind.

When a writer kills a character, it absolutely must happen for the sake of the story, and not just for gut impact. I’ve had enough people die on me in real life to have an inherent need to keep all my characters alive no matter what explosive battles they endure. But in my story about trolls who keep human children as pets, I knew I had no choice. The trolls have made their world toxic, but they refuse to admit it. It takes the death of my main troll child to push the human pets to fight against those hiding the cure. “The Letter” helps me combat the emotional drain and stay on task, forcing my characters to face the inevitable loss and inescapable future.

 

Click here for more on Thomas Newman’s LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

Kiss the Corpse…or the Fish, Take Your Pick

Bo and I did not know of the fish until we opened the funeral home doors. A large framed poster read: “Frank Varinski. 1920-2008. Gone Fishin’.” Half a dozen easels lined the walk up to the coffin, presenting countless images of the man fishing: from the back. From the side. Maybe three or four actually showed his face. It was not a unique face for an elderly man, especially one who fought Parkinson’s for the last ten years of his life. What struck me was Bo’s grandmother, whose body appeared in many pictures from the neck down. From the neck up we could only see a book. An umbrella. A jacket. This determination to not be photographed ran back through decades. Even at Bo’s baptism, she managed to hide behind her son who, at that point, was already wide enough to make that easy.

“What is with that woman?” I dared not whisper her name. Why? Because Grandma Varinksi scared me shitless. Frankly, I cannot imagine how Death had the guts to enter her house. Oh, she can look all sweet, baking Christmas cookies and canning her grape jelly, but the moment you infringe on family business—as I apparently did in marrying her grandson—or set her down to a card game her entire self transforms. All feebleness vanishes in those talon hands, and her dark irises click as a camera lens shutter closes in to focus so her pupils are dots fixated on you. Her mouth shrivels in upon itself, and when it opens language pours out the likes of which make you think you’ve entered a Quentin Tarantino movie. Thank God I never learned canasta.

“Hey, here’s a nice one. Out of a thousand.” Bo pointed to his grandparents sitting together on the pier, backs to the camera.

“Yeah, I had to sneak that one,” Bo’s uncle saddled up alongside us. The lenses of his thick glasses were spotted several times over with dried tears. “You know your grandma. Now that’s the only picture we’ve got of them together in the last ten years.” He started to say something else, but a loud slurring voice stopped him. “Oh god, it’s Kenny. You two go by your grandma.” A nondescript suit by the doorway turned up the Vivaldi, glared at us, and returned to staring straight ahead. Clearly, Grandma Varinksi wasn’t going to allow anyone or anything to interrupt her mourning.

My fingers twisted through Bo’s. Do we have to? Bo squeezed back, and walked us towards some tables instead. At first I thought these were some extravagant parting favors for those who came to the funeral—Frank’s gone fishin’, now you can to with your own pole and set of lures, complete with commemoration! Nope. These were all Frank Varinski’s. These were, according to his family, the culmination of his life.

His aunt came up then, face doughy and wet. “Aren’t they pretty? We couldn’t find his favorite, so we just put them all out. Did you want one?” I was about to say yes, a lure would be fine, but she wasn’t pointing at the lures. Propped up next to the lures stood heavily shellacked plaques. Each plaque was lined with fish heads: innards out, skin and bone stretched so mouths gaped with tiny teeth. The skin was nailed down millimeter by millimeter all the way around. Yellow-black eyes stuck in a stare wherever I bobbed my head.

Bo grabbed my shoulder and flashed a smile. Stop that! To his aunt: “Dad’s coming.”

She nodded vaguely. Bo’s dad had never left the limbo between approval and loathing in forty years. “Have you said goodbye yet?” We politely followed her to a coffin with fish leaping forth from every corner. “We get to keep those after the service,” she said, “to keep Dad close.” She bowed over and kissed the corpse. I could see the faint reflection of the epoxy holding his lips together, not to mention the heavy flesh-tone powder coating his skin. When Bo’s aunt lifted her head, tiny pools of tears remained trapped in the sands of face powder.

O-kay.

“Your turn.”

I opened my mouth to decline, but Bo squeezed my hand. Not a word. We stood awkwardly next to the coffin instead and watched the tear pools dissipate.

“Oh my, this is so lovely!” Enter Bo’s Grandma Hold, a widow for decades. “Well isn’t this something? What pretty hummingbirds! Oh my god, what happened to these, are these fish? Well that’s disgusting. Oh hi, Bo! Well it had to happen sometime, right?”

Bo maneuvered Grandma Hold and his father as best he could towards relatives and not fish heads. I fled the corpse kiss and found myself in the far corner of the parlor, away from all the pictures and lures, with Grandma Varinski. She sat alone watching a film of her wedding. The transfer company had been good enough to add a soundtrack of light jazz piano.

When it came to the Varinskis, nothing mattered more than family. If Bo’s mother hadn’t left the house to, of all the foolish things, get married and start a family of her own, then she would have never died of cancer. See Bo’s aunt and uncle? Never left the house, and nothing’s happened to them in fifty-some years. Healthy as horses. Mildred Varinski made sure of it, just like she would never let anyone mess with the family blood in her grandson, the one good thing out of her daughter’s mistake.

And then I showed up, the preacher’s kid who still rather liked God despite His antics.

Now the two of us sat together on a couch that smelled of lost Kleenex and potpourri. “Hi, Grandma.” (I was allowed to call her that.) She nodded stiffly, her lipstick a shade brighter than a stop sign and already smeared. “Who’s laughing at the camera right now?”

“That’s Fuzzy.”

“And her?”

“Lorraine.”

“She’s certainly enjoying herself.”

Grandma Varinski let out a quiet chuckle. “No kidding.” And on she went about relatives I had never met, planning the wedding, their first apartment above the deli and how the smells drove her crazy during pregnancy. “Never gained a pound because I only ate salami and watermelon. And pickles,” she added. Her talons remained tight on her handkerchief, wringing whatever life was left of its torn stitching. We sat together there for most of the visitation, with only brief interruptions by relatives. Her other children remained near the coffin, while Bo took in every picture and fish head with his father and Grandma Hold. “That’s him, right? He looks so good!”

A new nondescript suit glided over, paused to say, “We’ll be gathering the family for the procession now,” and rolled on through the parlor as if on skates. I held out my arm. The talons never let go of the handkerchief, but they sort of perched on me, too, like she was okay to touch me, so long as she had a buffer. We shuffled together passed all the photographs and fish heads in silence. I gave her to Bo’s uncle and continued with Bo and other relatives, some almost recognizable from their polyester selves sixty years ago. A syrupy version of Wind Beneath my Wings and the colored windows depicting doves and lilies made me feel like I was walking into cotton candy.

I clutched Bo and exhaled for what felt like the first time in hours. I survived.

“Maybe you two are finally good now,” he whispered to me as we sat down. Bo had never made his family a condition of our union, but there was no denying he cared for them and there was no denying Bo stood in the center of his grandmother’s universe. No matter my actions or words, I was The One Who Took Bo Away. Maybe now I could be The One Bo Brought In.

The music paused, I think, because Death decided to take one final jab at Mildred Varinski. If you aren’t familiar with Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna,” I suggest you put it on now, for this is when that masterpiece made its mark on the day.*

The chaplain signaled us to stand while the Varinskis walked down the aisle, audibly crying, cymbals and choirs hollering overhead. Who made this music loop? Where was that bouncer with the volume knob? To further prove Death was having fun, the choir shifted into its hushed staccato just in time for each Varinski to kiss their dead. I could see the tear streams on his face from my place, and I knew they were hurting, but dammit, this song and the fish and Good God one of them is actually putting a pole into the casket. I bit my lip, hard, DON’T SMIRK. The choir swelled as the casket closed. Gongs resounded as Bo’s uncle and aunt slumped towards the pew.

But not Mildred Varinski. She did not slump. That woman walked tall and alone. Her make up may be smeared in grief, but no one, not even Death, could ruin this moment. She looked upon her husband’s legacy within her children, her daughter’s legacy within her grandson.

And that woman narrowed her eyes on my face and knew I was not holding back tears.

Shit.

*Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”