Allison Field Bell
My grandmother Ethel: I never met her. She died when my mother was twenty-one. Breast cancer that spread to the brain. She raised seven children. She was a naval officer in World War II. She was college educated. She drank gin. She told stories. She drove cross-country with four children and a dog and antlers strapped to the roof of her Ford Falcon. She lured bears to campsites with bacon grease, just so her kids could see them. She was impulsive. At certain points, she had to dumpster dive to feed her family. She stayed up late at night, sometimes writing my mother letters about an argument they’d had. Dear Sarah, I’ve been thinking…
My mother Sarah: stubborn, smart. She ran a successful occupational therapy business for over two decades. She is quick to anger, to lash out. The Field temper, the family calls it. I have it too. Otherwise, we diverge in our sensibilities.
My grandmother Ethel: I imagine I am like her. Not in the logistics of her life, but in mood. My mother says, Could she have been bipolar? I suppose so. Did she have an alcohol problem? Yes. She says, I knew that my mom had a drinking problem, that she would turn into this kind of crazy person when she drank.
Do I have a drinking problem? My partner would say yes. I think. I would say I’ve had a drinking problem in the past—in the past, I’ve drank whole bottles of whiskey every day. I’ve lost chunks of time. I’ve gotten angry and then depressed. I’ve chain smoked cigarettes in my bathroom. I’ve fallen asleep in the bathtub more times than I care to count. I’ve blacked out and fucked and cried and thrown up and screamed and walked in places I should not walk.
Do I have a drinking problem now? I don’t drink until I blackout or throw up. I don’t drink in the morning. I don’t drink every day, though I do drink most days. I don’t yell and scream. I don’t fall asleep in the bathtub or walk where I shouldn’t walk. I sometimes lose time. And cry. If I’m a drunk, I’m a functional drunk.
My mother once found a letter from her father to her mother.
My grandfather: Stan. My grandmother: Ethel.
The letter said something like: This will only work if you get help with your alcohol problem. But I’m more interested in what’s underneath the alcohol. What was it about my grandmother that drove her to gin? Was she anxious like me? Or did she swing on that pendulum, one pole to the other pole, like me? My mother describes some things, and I immediately diagnose: manic.
She says that she would get home from school on a Friday and her mother would have the car completely packed to go camping for the weekend. She says that Ethel grew up WASPy on the East Coast with her sisters but decided on a whim to buy a new car and drive west to California, join the navy. She says that she was scared of her mother. She loved her, admired her, but she was scared too. Ethel was unpredictable. My mother: I think the feeling was that I never knew what to expect—she was like two different people. We’d go along and we’d have rules, fantasy. She was really into make-believe and dress-up and plays. She was a combination of culture and education and misery. My mother says that when things started to turn for their family—when my grandfather left—Ethel started shoplifting.
I remember she shoplifted these two cotton dresses. It was the 60s so they were lime green. One for me and one for Doris. I don’t remember wearing it a lot but I remember when I wore it, I felt embarrassed. Just kind of mortified.
My grandfather Stan: Stan survived a hurricane by strapping himself to a cement outbuilding. It wasn’t until after the storm had passed that he realized he was sitting on a case of Scotch. He smoked pipe tobacco and cigars. My mother remembers the smell. She doesn’t have much to say about him, about his way of being. He left when she was twelve so most of her stories are about my grandmother, my mother is still able to tell me the basics about Stan—his life before her and with her and then without her.
Stan was also a naval officer in World War II. He could navigate with a pocket watch and a sextant. He did underwater demolition. Later, he was an electrical engineer. Brilliant by all accounts. But inconsistent. He changed jobs a lot. My mother tells me he helped design the lighting on the San Rafael Richmond Bridge. He built all sorts of things—stone patios and treehouses and real houses too. He was mostly absent, she says, but when he was around, he was always building.
I am nothing like him. My brain is not mechanical, is not mathematical. It is all right and no left. He was a sailor, a spearfisherman. I am not a sailor, not a spearfisherman.
Stan loved the ocean though, loved the edge of water and sand. Loved the crisp curl of a wave and the flat expanse of the open sea.
I have an excerpt of my grandmother’s journal from when she was twenty-two. In it, she writes this: There is the day filled with too much.
She credits the phrase to a Thomas Sheraton, but I have looked and looked online and not been able to find a Thomas Sheraton or anyone else attached to that phrase. Perhaps he was a man she knew. Regardless, it is a phrase for me that embodies what it means to be bipolar.
There is the day filled with too much. As though she is reaching through her journal to speak to me specifically.
My mother: One of the crazier things she did—if you want to call it that—was when she broke all the china in the cabinet. It was fine bone china from Japan. White china with a golden edge and really fine hand painted green bamboo. A whole set. Gifted to her from Stan. She broke it after he left. He left her with seven children and no child support. He left her and my mother and the rest of his children—Ben, Bill, Doris, Anne, Bob, Sue—and the country. He moved to Panama and eventually Honduras and ran a fishing charter with a new love. So, she broke the china.
She broke everything. She wasn’t that drunk, but still. She broke everything and then she just got in the car and drove. She took backroads. She drove until she ran out of gas. She didn’t come home so she slept in the car. She had to walk down this road and get a ride with somebody. Doris and I got brooms and started sweeping up the china. And Bob took the brooms away and said, “No, you’re not cleaning this up. She is.”
I remember breaking a mason jar during a fight with my partner. I can’t remember what we were fighting about, but I pretended it was an accident. We were in Tucson. I swept my arm across the counter, felt it connect with my skin, my bone. Watched as it collided with the tile at my feet and shattered. I was satisfied and horrified. The breaking. My body in and out of control. The glass on the ground. The way something whole can so quickly become divided, fragmented. Broken. By my touch or movement.
I imagine breaking all that china. Paper-thin: you could just collapse it in your palm, feel it give under the strain of your own muscles. My mother says my grandmother scooped out armfuls of it from the cabinet and just let it crash to the ground. But I wonder how it would feel: one-by-one. Knowing how precious, how beautiful and delicate and irreplaceable. My mother has tried: she looks for the design in every antique store, at every estate sale. For fifty years, she’s looked.
Both Ethel and Stan were on the Pacific front in World War II. Stan lived in Honolulu during Pearl Harbor. He was called up to duty immediately afterward. As the story goes, Stan was the navigator on a decoy ship—he knew that it was going to be bombed, meant to be bombed. He knew sailors would die, and he navigated them into the line of fire. If you believe the story, Stan was in the water after the ship was hit. He watched men eaten alive by tiger sharks. And forever afterward, he was terrified of sharks. A naval officer, a sailor, a spearfisherman, a scuba diver, and yet he couldn’t stand the idea of sharks.
One of the stories my mother tells: leopard sharks and a metal cooler full of hamburger meat. In 1962, my mother and a friend—children then—waded through a section of ocean water in Bolinas, California.They floated the cooler between them. That’s when the sharks came. Smell of meat seeping into the water. My mother and her friend dropped the cooler and ran. My grandfather would have panicked.
They were fine ultimately. The cooler retrieved and riddled with bite marks.
The reason my mother tells this story: she too is terrified of sharks. Because of her father. Once, she saw him beat a small shark with a gaffing hook. Sharks, she associated with violence. And her father too not just because of the sharks. I’d also seen him be violent with my mother. Sometimes just the results of the violence. A black eye, a cauliflower ear. Of the shark and the gaffing hook incident, she says: it was so unexpected, so violent. It really worried me.
Those stories I didn’t hear until I was older. But as a child, I loved the story of the leopard sharks. I became obsessed with sharks. I loved their sleek dangerous bodies. I loved the way they presented a challenge: who could love that kind of predator, that kind of monster? I could. I was afraid of them too. And I loved that they were not easy to love.
I met Stan only once. He lived in Vancouver with his third wife—the one he traveled to Central America with, the one he abandoned my grandmother for. Many of his children did not, could not forgive him for this. But my mother could, did. He was not an easy man to love, but she wanted to love him and so she did.
She took me, my brother, my father, and her brother Bill with his wife and kids too. We all drove up to Canada to see Stan. I don’t remember much about the trip. I was young. But I remember a garden and a pea patch. Grandpa Pea Patch, we called him. I remember running through the pea patch and plucking the tender green pods from the plant, splitting them along the seam with my fingernails to reveal a trio of plump green orbs. Or maybe that’s not quite right, maybe I popped them into my mouth and chewed them whole.
Stan and I are both runners. He ran away from his family at fifteen. He ran away from his family at fifty-one. I’ve run away from lovers, from friends, from colleges. Stan ran to Panama, Honduras. I’ve run to South America, to the Middle East, to Greece.
The feeling of running: legs beneath body. Or maybe on an airplane, strangers in every direction. Tray table locked, seat in its full upright position. Endless potential. The way a person can just disappear or start over or be even more fully herself. No accountability, no expectations. Running: moving toward something and away from something also. Away from the past and the people who populate it. Away from mistakes. Away from responsibility. I imagine Stan walking around an airport, unhindered by his children, his wife. Maybe he buys a whiskey as I would. Top shelf and neat. Maybe he stares out the window, wondering where to go next. All the possibilities. Who he could become.
Or maybe none of that is right.
Stan would have sailed down there to Panama, Honduras. He would have wanted his boat. He would have preferred the water: the endless horizon. Running: a sail cutting through air, bow of a boat breaking the surface.
Stan was riddled with PTSD. That my mother knows for sure. Trauma that lives in the brain and body and passes down through generations—to me. I guess if I were to sum it up, I’d say he was a failure, my mother says, he failed at being a father, he failed at his career, and he failed as a husband. I am not a mother or a wife. And maybe that in itself is a failure. And my career is as varied as my grandfather’s was. Perhaps my desire to be connected to my grandmother is about her strength, her ability and willingness to stay. Perhaps, I am really more like my grandfather. Afraid to be the one who scoops out armfuls. Afraid to be the one who stays.
Allison Field Bell
Allison Field Bell is originally from northern California but has spent most of her adult life in the desert. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Prose at the University of Utah, and she has an MFA in Fiction from New Mexico State University. Her work appears in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, New Orleans Review, West Branch, Epiphany, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. Find her at allisonfieldbell.com.
Art: “Agnes from Enceladus” by Lena Snow, Acrylic on Paper