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Nonfiction: Love in the Archives


She painted with tempera on the kitchen floor, an old roll-up window shade soaking up the excess. Painted with confidence and abandon. Here a dragon, there a mermaid, recognizable to her alone. Graduated to an easel and drippy paints that gravity helped along. Trees were pink, hair blue. There was often glitter involved. She collected My Little Ponies with all their shoes and accessories.

Then school happened and she came home in tears. Said, "I'm not good at art." Didn't want to paint. Maybe she hadn't cut out the perfect circle. Perhaps she was a bit messy. She was not accustomed to coloring within the lines. She mixed her paints because that's what she'd always done. She could make the best purple. The boldest orange.

She collected rocks then, and shells and sharks' teeth when we visited Florida. Normal collections. She collected Girl Scout Badges.

Later, she just created. It was a need as much as a talent. She drew and painted and wrote and played the flute. She collected Pez dispensers and images that she cut out and taped to her walls. She collected 4-H ribbons and trophies. First place at the county fair in art for her Book of Hours. They told her she was good at art.

She collected old books. And shoes. And second-hand clothes. She added bibles and the Quran and the Book of Mormon and read them all, underlining and writing in swirling script in the margins. She read about Kabbalah and Buddha and bought a hologram Jesus in a gold frame at Veteran's Warehouse for twenty bucks. She collected comic books. Expensive ones that came in their own plastic covers. Milk and Cheese, The Crow. Some vintage R. Crumb.

She found things made of plastic and metal, broken and discarded, and hung them from her ceiling. She collected plastic rosaries and cheap scroll-less, soulless mezuzahs. Taped more images to the walls until there was no space between them. She lived inside a collage. She painted on the ceiling. She went to a summer art camp at Goucher College. She drew a large birdlike creature in charcoal. The instructor liked it. They told her she was good at art.

She collected notes from friends and letters from people she'd just met her first time in the hospital. People I'd never met and hoped would not keep in touch. When a letter came from prison, I learned she'd written to Charles Manson. She said she asked him why he'd killed those people. She hung some plastic rosaries from the ceiling. A large crucifix. A wooden dreidel. Burned Nag Champa incense and Shabbat candles in her room. I always worried about that. Forbade it. I threatened and hollered. She made a Voodoo doll out of the wax.

We took down the pictures, one by one, gently peeling back the yellowed tape, taking far more care with the brittle paper than the walls. The walls could be fixed. We filled many plastic containers. We needed a ladder for the ceiling. It made me dizzy looking up and reading the swirling words, "Keep your head above the water."

She had an electric EXIT sign over the door. Next to it she'd written "Goodbye." A friend helping with the packing thought it was a note. Tried to hide it from me, thinking I'd be upset. I'd already spent hours looking and couldn't remember if that had been there before. "Don't hide anything from me, damn it! I want to know."

I kept all of her notebooks, journals, and letters for years in large plastic containers, taking them each time I moved but never being able to read them. I'd get through a tiny bit and my heart would hurt. Really hurt, not like an emotion so much as like angina. I welcomed that at times; I never considered going to the hospital.

When I finally went through some of those things, needing to consolidate, Manson's letter was the first thing I burned.

I burned that letter because just touching it felt evil. He was still alive then, and the thought of him made me understand what it means to feel your skin crawl. The idea of my daughter reading his vile words, misspelled and looking like a third-grader's sloppiest work, made me want to scream. He'd encouraged her to drop out of school. We'd laughed together at that. She had decided on her first choice of a college by fifth grade. I was afraid one of his followers would track her down. I think it scared her. "You don't want to know people like this. You don't want to share your thoughts with them or touch anything they've touched. You don't want to inhale their DNA." I held my breath as the letter, scrawled on yellow legal pad, turned to ash.

Her friends loved her room. My friends wondered why I let her do it. "It's her room. I don't have to love her taste in décor." It was the same when her hair was blue or when her head was shaved. Her hair, her head. Hers to shave or dye, or twirl into dreadlocks, or braid into cornrows. I thought she was beautiful, bald or blue-haired. She collected mannequin parts and painted them.

She collected bones from roadkill. I gave her latex gloves and hand sanitizer and asked that she bleach them and leave them in the sun to dry. Feathers. She collected feathers. I hope she can see where I live now. I'm often visited by herons, egrets, and wood storks. Eagles nest nearby. At night when I walk the dog, I can hear owls hooting. She'd have liked that.

An Orthodox rabbi stood in her room the first day of Shiva. Hologram Jesus looked on. A light bulb, rescued from a trash heap and painted red, dangled from a string above his black hat. "You look like a man with an idea," I said, pointing to the bulb. Friends later told me I was scary. The way I mingled. "Would you like more coffee? How about a piece of that cake you brought?" That was before I believed it. Before it became real.

I have one large plastic bin left. Here are some of the things I've kept: cards that she made me, printed in large letters, the Y's tail in Lydia always backward early on. A Brownie sash covered front and back with badges. Several diaries. A book of quotes, not by famous people, but by her friends. A box of paper beads that she made. Some very ugly costume jewelry. Her glasses. A lock of hair. (My son once suggested that we have her cloned). Baby teeth with notes to and from Esmeralda, the tooth fairy. Pens and colored pencils in a case, charcoal, and one of those soft white erasers that still smells like an eraser after all these years. Notes from her teachers, good and bad. Lots of condolence cards. A wax Voodoo doll. Some of the magazine-clipped pictures peeled from her wall, the tape sticking them together in clumps.

These are things I've saved that live outside the plastic bin: her 4-H mug which I never put in the dishwasher because it may fade and which no one else is ever allowed to use. The plaster handprint she made in kindergarten. A pink and lilac scarf that she knitted. Some tiny origami paper cranes. The Quran. The Book of Mormon. A yellowed copy of Quest for a Maid from fifth grade. Her prize-winning Book of Hours, also from fifth grade. A less yellow but much underlined and written-in copy of Staying Put, Making a Home in a Restless World, from a later grade. Her painting of an Asian woman that I once pulled out of the trash and had nicely framed much later. A flute. A girl scout pin. A panoramic photo collage of her room commissioned by a friend, framed and hidden away in a closet because it's another one of those things that makes my heart hurt.

It's been a very long time that I've held onto these things. Some have become totems, sacred reminders of my beautiful daughter. When I read one of Scott Sander's stunning essays in Staying Put, I sometimes skip to the underlined bits. When I drink from that 4-H mug, I never hurry; I always take the time to think of her. This is as close to prayer as I can get. The Asian woman in her painting looks over my shoulder as I write, cautioning me, "It's not all about you. Don't say things she wouldn't like."

She wouldn't like me to talk about how she looked when I found her, or about the screaming that I thought was coming from somewhere else but later found out was me. She wouldn't want me to go on about how much it still hurts or how her brother is finally beginning to talk about that night. So, I'll leave out those details.

A local art gallery and workspace holds a Painters and Poets contest every year. Artists display their work, and members of our local writers' group are invited to select a piece and write a poem about it. There were some lovely paintings, lots of realism. One small piece was a jumble of bottle caps, soda-can tabs, corks, nails and other odd bits. It reminded me in a way of that long-ago ceiling. How I never knew why a particular object spoke to her. Invited her to own it. Why that piece of broken tile but not the white glass doorknob next to it. Why Pez dispensers? Did the plastic rosary beads whisper words of wisdom? I'm no poet, but I wrote this, thinking of her:

What do you see
with your artist's eye
in the stuff of landfills
Does it call out to you
Look at me, look at me
While we who do not suffer
the burden of perspicacity
Rely on your eyes
to show us
the beauty in the mundane

I didn't bother going to the reception. Only later, when a friend noticed the small article in the local paper, did I learn that my poem had won first place. I was happy for the artist. I hope she liked my poem—that it validated her work. I hope she will never say, "I'm not good at art."

I used to search for my daughter late at night on the internet. Anything would help. One late night, there it was: a poem, "Mooning" by Lydia, describing her thoughts on her favorite restaurant in Baltimore where Pez Dispensers and Barbie dolls hung from the ceiling and an eclectic assortment of kitsch filled every shelf and crevice. No wonder she'd felt at home there. I remember the first time we went. There was a sink in the side yard, filled with flowers. We both thought it lovely. When we walked inside, I thought her psychic twin must have had a hand in this. She never knew they'd printed her poem in their newsletter.

When we were getting the house ready to be sold, we painted over the walls in her room. I hired someone to do it. It had to be white. It took several coats. The painter kept wanting to show me how the paint was covering up her writing. I didn't want to see it. It felt like we were erasing her. The words on the ceiling were painted red and needed even more coats than the walls. I couldn't be a witness to it. I was trying to keep my head above the water.