A Bitterness in My Heart

The thing they don’t really get into in the story of the Prodigal Son is that the son who stayed behind is only temporarily pissed at the son who left. Eventually, he comes to realize that his dad is a jerk and he’s a chump and that his brother probably had good reasons for running off.

The Prodigal Son is not the problem in that family.

I try, very hard, to not think about the stupidity of my family and how it makes my life harder, because it really, really upsets me. But I also sometimes feel a great conspiracy between the Universe and my family against me, so that, just after I get a phone call about how my parents bought my brother a new washing machine (after everything else), I’m sitting on the side of the road with my hazards on so that people know to watch out for the Butcher, who is looking for a bolt on the side of the road so that he can replace his battery so that he can move his van to someplace safe so that he can put in a new alternator, all bought with money much depleted after a trip to my folks to help them with chores around the house.

After the ceiling fiasco, I vowed never to be in a position to need money from my parents again and, knock on wood, I have not been. (And again, thanks to everyone who made that possible.)

But I can’t let it go. The healthy thing would be to say “Well, it’s their money, their fucked up relationship to our brother, their problem. If it makes them happy or doesn’t or whatever, not my business.” Even just typing it here, I feel better seeing it out loud. We are all adults and what they do is their business and not a reflection on me and my life. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.

But I don’t feel it in my heart.

In my heart, I feel like they choose, every day, to make sure my brother’s way is as easy as they can make it and they think I should find my own way. And then their feelings are hurt when my way isn’t what they thought I should do. And so, here we are.

I’m pissed. They’re hurt. The world goes round.


I know I’ve told you how shocked I was to learn that my German ancestors didn’t all come over in the late 1800s. My mom’s great-grandfather, a Fisser/Fisher, came over then and married a Swedish gal who also came over then. My dad was assigned to some of the earliest churches he was assigned to because, in the 70s/80s, there was a big push to get everyone Social Security cards, so elderly people had to have some proof of birth. A lot of times, in these old farming communities, the proof of birth these elderly people had was their baptismal records. My dad doesn’t speak German, but he could read enough of it to translate the records, hence his gigs.

My Grandpa Phillips, the story goes, was the first person in our family who only spoke English. Considering his birth date–right before World War I–it makes sense that he’d not have been taught German. But, folks, I assumed, if his mother–born Ina Mae Hiestand–was bilingual, then she was probably the daughter or grand-daughter of immigrants. No, those stubborn bastards had been in this country since before it was a country. They just never gave up their German ways. “German ways” in this case being extreme grouchiness and a love of sweets.

Oh, lord, I’m not having some kind of writing crisis this week! I’m reclaiming my roots!

Anyway we’re descended from the brother of the guy who built this house up in Kentucky. There’s as many generations between the guy who built that house and Germany as there is between me and that guy.

In the Times today there’s an opinion piece about how we should all reclaim our German roots, which have been all but lost, supposedly. I don’t know. My family hasn’t given up extreme grouchiness or a love of sweets or bratwurst or chicken fried steak or a fondness for Mennonites. But what would it mean for us to embrace our German culture? The one from 1730?

My dad has a friend whose family never did give up speaking German. They spoke it in secret, even after it became so suspicious to do so. When his friend went “back” to Germany, a place his family hadn’t lived, also, in almost four hundred years, he couldn’t understand a damn person. He finally located the place his family was from and he could understand their dialect, but they had a hard time understanding his. They thought he spoke like a weird, very old person.

Even if the anti-German sentiment in the 20th Century hadn’t taken place, we would be nostalgic for a weird, old Germany that contemporary Germans would find strange.

I don’t know. I guess I just find it strange to try to reclaim A German ethnic identity. If you just go by who spoke German, my parents are the same amount of German–each had a German great-grand parent. But it strikes me as absurd to think that Grandpa Fisher and Grandma Phillips would think they shared a common culture. He came directly from Germany. She most decidedly did not.

On the other hand, we did grow up hearing stories of how German prisoners of war at Fort Custer were sent out into the town to work and how some of them disappeared into the community never to be found when the war ended. So, I guess finding fellow German speakers might have been enough for some camaraderie.

But, I don’t know. I still come down on the side of “reclaiming” German roots being something like “making up a stereotype about Germans and then treating that as if that’s how we all should act.” I’m not particularly interested in that.

I will, however, continue to be grouchy, as is the way of my people.

In Good News

My little cousin posted pictures of her and her brother at her father’s grave, because today is his birthday. So, familial efforts to thwart that were, indeed, thwarted.

So, ha ha ha.


This morning I was listening to Keith Richards singing “Good Night Irene” and I swear I remember my Grandpa Phillips singing that when I was a little girl. The gravel in his voice.

But I find it kind of baffling now, to think of my grandfather singing at all.

So, I wonder if that was true, if it really happened.

But, if it didn’t, how did I come to know the song?


One thing that constantly surprises me when I see my brothers’ girlfriends with their kids is just how much time kids now spend with their moms (and dads, too, I think). I love my mom and feel like she was really great as a mother when we were growing up. I don’t ever remember playing with her. Either we played games as a whole family or kids entertained themselves and my mom… I don’t know… did whatever she did when we weren’t around.

I don’t think this way is worse or anything, but I remember my grandma telling me when I was in college that she didn’t understand how the stay at home moms of the 90s did it because it seemed so boring and lonely. But I don’t think even in the 90s, moms were expected to spend so much time with kids doing the things kids want to do without seeing other adults.

And, obviously, this situation wouldn’t have arisen if being let loose in the yard all afternoon all summer long while our mothers did whatever worked for us. Clearly, we’re raising kids this way because something about the other way didn’t work for us.

But I’m not going to be surprised if the next generation of mothers lives closer to their siblings and/or friends and we see more pitching in by adults so that no one feels isolated and cut off from the adult world.

Family Weekend

Lord. On Saturday, we made pork chops, green bean casserole, asparagus, greens, biscuits, and potato salad for everyone–the Butcher and his girl and her kids, our brother, his girl, all his kids, our parents. We got accused of doing more for this meal than we do at Thanksgiving. There was a pool. There was cornhole. People were jumping cracks in the sidewalk with a scooter. The dog ate Cheetos and is still not recovered from a weekend of no one allowing him to nap. The niece was less screamy this time and she did even pet him a couple times. But he still heard “No, no, no!” more than he normally does.

There was drama and hurt feelings and my heart hurt a little by the end. But, in general, I think it was a very nice visit.


My nephews were here this weekend and my youngest nephew must be a good foot taller than than he was the last time I saw him. It was so nice. They are funny and fun to hang out with and my god, my oldest nephew has become a beautiful guitarist.

But it made me laugh that the one song my dad, my brother, and my nephew can all play is “Light My Fire,” which they play as some kind of cross between the original and Jose Feliciano’s version. And my nephew knows a ton of old Metallica, which also pleased me.

And the Butcher was pleased because my nephew knew a guitar tuning app which meant that the guitar that his girlfriend’s boy had set the pegs all flat on got put right. And my dad was pleased because he tuned it by ear while my nephew was futzing with the phone and my dad was only slightly off on one string. “My A is always true,” he explained.

Slipping Away

My mom has told me, at great length, the exact same story about her mom’s getting lost at the grocery store–the grocery store she drives herself to for her preferred chocolate–and my aunt’s wanting to either get her a live-in nurse or put her in a home and my other aunt’s belief that my grandmother can decide for herself.

There’s a certain amount of humor, dark humor, in listening to someone terrified her mother has lost her mind telling you that in almost the exact same words twice not four days apart. But I listened and nodded and supported my mom in the same way twice, because I don’t think my mom is losing her mind. I think she’s having to realize something very terrible–that, here, at the end of her mom’s long life, she and her sisters are going to have to do something to/with her that she’s going to hate so much there might not be any coming back from it. She does not want to go into a home. She does not want a nurse. Her house flooded earlier this summer and it’s been a nightmare of that and, for some reason, moths, and my mom and one aunt had to fight her to get the basement cleaned up and she won’t do the things she needs to do to stop the moth infestation even though the bug guy told her that there’s only so much he can do if she won’t make some fundamental changes. She won’t do the physical therapy she’s supposed to be doing. She’s got a urinary tract infection. She won’t treat it.

I also think she’s depressed. No, the big D. I think she has Depression. Which, who the fuck wouldn’t, if you’re in your mid-90s and you know you’re losing your mind? But she denies that to her doctor as well.

If you’ve read along here for any length of time, you know that my family is not good at… I don’t know quite how to get at it… If something bad is happening to you, I think we have a tendency to blame you for it and to assume that the way to help you is to let you help yourself or ask for help. You tell us what to do and we’ll maybe do it, but, if you can’t ask or you don’t know, tough shit, we’re mad at you for making us uncomfortable.

That’s not entirely fair. We have a lot of good qualities on top of that. But I’m just trying to make clear that my grandma needs my family to do something they are really not in practice of doing. She needs them to see that she can’t make decisions for herself anymore and she needs them to act.

I have not, since I was a small child, experienced them as people who can act in someone’s best interest without being asked for help. And yet, I think my mom is trying to come to grips with the fact that she can’t ask, that she won’t ask.

My mom and dad are being called upon to finally do what they have never done, what they have always failed to do. I’m frightened for them. I hope they don’t fail her.

And my poor grandma.

A Little Bit of Everything

–Yesterday morning, that Dawes song came on the radio and I just sobbed the whole time it played.

–I saw a screenshot of the New York Times this morning that has the verdict in the Colorado theater mass shooting, a story about the ongoing investigation of the Charleston shooting, and then, of course, breaking news about the Chattanooga shooting. And somewhere, I guess, a guy sits in his room planning the next shooting. Round we go.

–We have these shootings so often that I feel kind of emotionally fried. But it broke my heart in a new way to watch on Twitter the people who knew these guys–the victims and the shooter–struggling with trying to understand how yesterday morning, these were just some guys they knew and liked and today they are gone and transmuted into symbols that prove something to someone somewhere who never knew them in the first place.

–I’m still having an ongoing, difficult conversation with my cousin and still feeling like I am utterly failing at it. I guess I get that we were told we had one kind of family and we, in fact, have another kind. But, I also guess that I feel like we aren’t going to ever actually be the kind of family we were told we had, so it makes me sad, to some extent, that we can’t be the kind of family we wanted so desperately to pretend like we were. But I’m also kind of relieved that most of us aren’t pretending anymore. And I don’t know if we can build a new kind of family or if people even want to.

It took me a long time to be okay with that, to decide that what would be the best way to love this mess of a family, is to have no expectations and to just take whatever good thing whoever can manage to do when they can.

I mean, maybe I’m not completely okay with that. But it’s what brings me peace and lets me stop being constantly hurt and confused.

But, what works for one doesn’t, I suppose, work for another.

Family Things

I talked to my cousin for a long time last night. Her dog is dying. She’s bummed. But the other thing is that she’s pissed kind of existentially that the family we were all told we have is not the family we have. And I admit to finding it a little illuminating and befuddling to be sitting on this end of that conversation. Because, damn, man, have I sat at her end. A lot. A long time.

So, I had nothing comforting to tell her, which I found interesting and alarming.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m not making my point clear. But I guess what I’m trying to get at is the ways in which I am constantly assuming knowledge is power–to know something is to have power over it. To understand it is to reduce its ability to fuck you up.

Those things are not true. Knowing all the subtleties of a thing, all the minor details, all the facts (or even, in my case, just many of them, not even a majority but more than some know) does not make you immune to being hurt, still, by them.

Having thought a lot about a thing does not, in this case, make it easier for me, or even possible, to say something that will make it make sense.

All this work I’ve done hasn’t really moved me beyond things and I don’t feel like it’s given me skills to help someone else resolve it.

I guess I don’t believe in resolution. That’s where I’ve gotten after all this time. Resolution and catharsis are attractive fictions, but they’re fictions.

Closer than You’d Think

On Friday, after the crowd sang Happy Birthday to me, I made a joke about it being the twentieth anniversary of my twenty-first birthday, and, even as I said it, I realized, then, that it was the twentieth anniversary of my Uncle B.’s death. Which must be true, seeing as that’s how physics work. Things that happened at the same time happened at the same time and thus retreat into the past at the same rate.

I never think of turning twenty-one. My Uncle B. is almost always in my thoughts. I go to the Civil War battlefields I know he enjoyed and I think about whether he’d be able to traverse them or not. I wander through museums and I look for the most obscure stuff and I try to suck all the meaning I can from them because I know it’s the kind of thing he’d enjoy. I try to treat children as interesting people with important things to say because that’s how he treated me and I know how important it was to me.

So, it feels to me that he must have died quite recently. Long enough ago that it doesn’t suck every day that he’s gone, but recently enough that it’s still strange that he’s not here, that my habit is still to take into consideration how he would think about things.

I have to believe this is why people came to believe there was something more to this world than just the here and now–this feeling that the long dead aren’t that far away.

Sweet Misery

My parents’ visit was both nice and grueling. We had a nice time. We went to the Dylan/Cash/Nashville Cats exhibit at the Hall of Fame. We had a lovely time. We got ice cream. We got a ton of stuff that I needed done around the house done. We spent all day with the Butcher’s girlfriend and her kids (when they call me “Miss Betsy” it does something to my insides I can’t even explain.) and we saw more of Gallatin than I even knew existed.

And I caught my dad on the phone with his friend explaining why I’ll never be married. I’m too mean. And, I don’t know, it just stung. Not that I want to be married. I just don’t want the people who I love to view my not being married as something that needs to be explained away with some untrue character defect. Say I hate to leave the house, that I don’t like to meet new people, that I am often the last person a man dates before he meets his wife or that I have occasionally sent men home to their wives and so I just, apparently, am the kind of woman who reminds men what they want in a wife who is not me.

But mean?

Sweet Jesus. If I were mean things would be a lot different in this family.

I’m miserably sunburned. And I pulled my shoe apart on accident this morning, like some kind of Hulk. It was good to see them, though. I miss them when they’re not around. I just wish, after all this time, we’d have learned how not to step on each others’ toes.


I found this picture of my niece on my dad's phone and I immediately texted it to myself, because I recognized that it may be the greatest picture ever taken.

I found this picture of my niece on my dad’s phone and I immediately texted it to myself, because I recognized that it may be the greatest picture ever taken.


My Uncle B. is fascinated by stories of reincarnation–where little kids are all “Oh, hey, Mom, remember when I died?” and then it turns out they have all these memories of being World War II fighter pilots.

I’m also fascinated by them, but not for the same reasons. I’m struck by how the memories of a kid’s old life fade. How you might be left with this sense that there was someone you used to be, but you’ve forgotten the specifics.

My dad makes fun of reincarnation, because everyone imagines they were Cleopatra and no one was the guy building the Pyramids who died of, I don’t know, scurvy. But those aren’t the kinds of stories that are compelling to Uncle B. and me. We like, I think, the suggestion that, if you got some kind of raw deal–died of cancer when you were 4 or in a plane crash when you were 20–you can get another shot.

I don’t think Uncle B. and I are waiting around to see if Grandma is going to be reincarnated. It’s hard to imagine she’d want to, after living a whole, long life. But the idea that you can cheat the kinds of death that cheat you? Oh, I like that.

But I also like how that kind of reincarnation turns your old self into a kind of ghost that haunts your current self. Perhaps turns your own body into a haunted house.

My Riders in the Sky Pull is Non-Existant

My dad called to ask me to get him backstage at the Riders in the Sky concert my parents are going to, so he can have dinner with the band. I am not able to make that happen. But I guess I’m flattered that he thought I would be?

He also called to tell me all about how they’re getting to take a tour of their local public radio station and how they may even volunteer to take phone calls during their next pledge drive.

The Butcher is so tickled by this he vows to call them both up randomly to make sure their phone-answering game is strong.

I think I’m in the long, boring part of the stripey afghan, but I’m really loving how it looks. I’m just a little sad to be through with the color changes.

Battle Creek

Four generations of Phillipses rot in the ground in Battle Creek, Michigan. I dream so deeply and frequently about my grandma’s house there on Bradley I worry I haunt it.

Battle Creek has always been a kind of mythic place for me, where all the stories my dad told about his childhood took place.

So, I’m excited that “Battle Creek” is supposed to be good. I can’t wait to watch it.

Research, Smesearch

I got the marriage certificate for Belle Phillips. It claims she didn’t list her parents. I paid $13 for the privilege of suspecting someone doesn’t know how to read an old handwritten book.

Trouble with Geneology in a Recalcitrant Family

My Great-Grandpa Frank had some brothers and sisters–Caribel, Barlow, Ralph, and Clyde (because I guess my great-great-grandfather and mother were trying to start an Old West Town, singlehandedly). My dad knew some of Ralph’s children. Not well, but he remembers my grandpa going to visit them and some of them coming to visit the him. Barlow’s grandson is the old man in Marshall I talked to a few years ago. His son is down in Memphis. Clyde, as far as I know, didn’t have any kids.

Which left Caribel. At some point in the census records, she became “Belle” but she may have also been called Carrie. There is no dead Belle Phillips or Carrie Phillips or Caribel Phillips who fits her (born in 1869, lived in Eaton County, Michigan). But it seemed to me that she should be easy enough to find, with enough patience, because her dad was born in Michigan and her mom was born in Ohio.

So, armed with a potential first name (or three), a set of facts that must be true about her parents, and a birth year and knowing that the Phillipses, though ostensibly not close, tended not to stray too far from each other, I looked for a married woman with those names, that birth year and those kinds of parents whose husband was also from Eaton County Michigan.

I found Carrie Cole, married to William T. Cole. They lived in Grand Rapids which, though not Eaton County, is not very far from it. And it looks like I can order a marriage certificate, which would tell me for sure who Carrie’s parents were. Score!

But wouldn’t it be easier to just ask my dad and his siblings if they remember any facts about their great-aunt that might lead to confirming if this was her?

So, of course, my aunt insists that her dad never talked about the Phillipses and that they were not close, not even the siblings. She doesn’t know. Which, okay, fine. Obviously, there’s a lot of bad blood (for good reasons) on the Phillips side, but the Phillipses weren’t dead to each other. Like I said, my dad met Ralph’s kids. My uncle knows Barlow’s grandson–he put me in touch with him. And I just Facebook messaged the grandson of my dad’s Aunt Vi (my grandpa’s sister), a guy I’ve known my whole life and who sits with us at all family events, and asked him if he’d ask his mom.

If the Phillipses never talked and were not at all close, how do I know the grandson of my grandpa’s sister?

My dad just rolled his eyes when I told him that my forays into asking my aunt about things. He said I should know by now that I’m only going to get decent information from his brother, not his sister.

You are what you are and you make it hard

The Butcher is in his room puking. The dog is…. I don’t even know. Possibly trying to lick his face. Or at least look with interest at the garbage can he’s puking in.

A one-eyed dog, limping and deaf, has been wandering around the back yard (and other places. Say what you will about out here. There are a lot of other places.). Saying it like that makes it sound quaint. The dog is dying. I tried going up to it, to see if it had a collar, but its behavior was so unnerving that I backed away.

In a story, that dog symbolizes something or is The Old Man come to launch himself over the line one more time.

In real life, that’s just a dog someone should have taken care of, but didn’t, and now it’s not safe to approach.

Here’s the thing. I considered feeding that dog. And I know what I’m about to say is going to seem fucked up, but I decided against it. Because having that dog in my back yard more consistently isn’t safe for the people and animals who regularly are in my back yard because I want the to be.

It’s not less valuable than Sonnyboy or less worthy of a full belly than the cats.

And I know it’s hanging around back there because our neighbor tosses table scraps into his back yard and because our back yard smells like a place where a dog can find some food and water.

I’m just choosing the animals I like and know over it. Even knowing what it means for that dog.

Now we’re in a metaphor. I feel like I should announce that.

But here’s the thing. Over the past couple of months, an unnatural amount of people have told me how nice I am and I never know quite how to take it. I don’t really perceive of myself as being nice nor is nice a trait I’m particularly worried about having. I worry about being mistaken for being nice, because I feel like that leads people to inadvertent and unnecessary hurt when they discover that I’m not. But I don’t really have much interest in being nice. It seems terrifying and unsafe and to put the people you care about at risk.

A nice person would find a way to make that dog more comfortable. Feed it, at least.

I’m choosing the well-being of my household over the well-being of the strange dog lurking about. If it’s still around on Monday, I’m going to call animal control. I figure the death they give it, if they can find it, will be better than whatever’s waiting for it out here.

I don’t speak to my sister-in-law. She still managed to massively disrupt my holiday. My dad tries very hard to be nice and kind to her.

I don’t really see the payoff.

So, I hope she’s praying for his long and continued good health.

Every Damn Year

I feel so low right about now and every damn year I’m surprised by it. I can’t believe it’s only Thursday. This week has been so long. I’m having lunch with a friend of my mom’s tomorrow. I don’t know why. I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me. She knew my mom in grade school.

But I guess she’s in town for some medical tests and who wants to come to a strange city alone for medial tests and have no one to have lunch with? I sure as fuck wouldn’t.

So, that’s why I said yes.

I just feel like this time of year is the time of year when the things we want from each other and the things we’re capable of actually doing for each other stand in stark contrast, bleak contrast, to each other and it makes me sad.

I am So Tired

I did one thing on Saturday and one thing on Sunday and I could have slept like the dog. I just need to make it through these two weeks and I’ll have some semblance of a vacation around Christmas.

My parents are concocting some plan for us all to go down to my brother’s house for Christmas so that his girlfriend can cook Christmas dinner for us. We’ll have to talk more about it this week, but I’m of the opinion that this simply is not going to happen. They can’t afford those kinds of groceries and it seems really grossly unfair to expect someone–again who is not related to us or legally tied to us–to make us dinner, especially without asking.

I will say, though, that I find it more interesting to watch at 40 than to live through at her age. They really, truly, do expect that some woman is just going to fucking do all the shit and that the person who has to do all the shit is a woman and is the woman least capable of telling them to go pound sand.

I felt like that when I was going through it, but I didn’t have the perspective to know if it was true.

But man, I’ll make Christmas dinner, at my house, where people who have a small child can watch that child and relax and not work any harder than they have to. And by “they” I mean “she” because that’s the truth of it.

I don’t know, I mean, I guess we’re all bags of dicks in our own ways, but my parents want something from my brother’s girlfriend (which I find irritating and uncool) which will then make them feel like they’re getting something from my brother (again, uncool, but poignant) which they are never going to get. I mean, even if she were up for it (and it’s impossible to be up for. It’s soul-crushing.), getting your emotional needs met by one person doesn’t make you feel whole with the other person.

What they want from my brother, he can’t give them.

Happy Thanksgiving

We’re leaving here in an hour or so to go to Hooters in Chattanooga to have lunch as a family with our brother and his girlfriend and our niece and maybe a nephew.

I am excited, but on my walk this morning, I cried a little. I don’t want to make new traditions. And as nuts as they make me, I love my parents and am sad we’re not going to be together.

But anyway, I am grateful to spend Thanksgiving with these yahoos. Even at Hooters.