Leaving Ellsworth

“Ouch,” says the lemon

Math Bass, Found Needlepoint. 2023, oil on linen. 38 × 40”. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar, New York.

Joseph was born
at 7:35 pm on May 28, 2021, in Ellsworth, Maine. They put him on my chest, his limbs splayed on top of me, useless as he cried. He had hair. They put a tiny stretchy cotton hat on his head, which immediately became stained with blood. Jonah said I looked bewildered—the same adjective he had used when I sat down on the couch in our makeshift apartment fifteen days earlier, just home from seeing my mother die. It didn’t seem possible she would die until she did. And it didn’t seem possible to have a baby until we did. Later, in the quiet overnight while I held my tightly wrapped son, I hallucinated my mom for an instant, sitting on the edge of the recliner, out of the corner of my eye.

Even as a newborn Joseph loved to be outside. We walked him in a stroller around Ellsworth, sometimes intersecting with a flock of young turkeys moving from yard to yard. I laid him on a blanket in the park and showed him things he couldn’t yet see. He reacted to the sensation of wind on his face. We took him to Branch Lake, changed his diaper on a picnic table, and dipped his feet in the water. Jonah skipped pebbles from the beach across the surface. I felt confident as a new mother but also worried that there was a part of me that was dead and therefore unavailable to Joseph to use and play with. I felt like a stone that would always sink. 

We sat on the porch at my dad’s house, with the dog locked up inside, and looked at the clouds and listened for airplanes. Except I still called it “my parents’ house.” My dad had taken up smoking, his fingers becoming stained yellow with the turmeric derivative he put in the tobacco. He told me he was happy I wasn’t angry at him anymore. We had gotten into blowout fights in the weeks before my mom died. When he refused to eat because he thought the food I cooked smelled like “cafeteria food,” I told him he was being a baby. He slammed the door. Now he held the baby gingerly and formally. “Joseph, it’s your grandfather.”

Jonah’s siblings came to visit, one by one, and we went for walks at a bird sanctuary on the road toward Bar Harbor. It was hot and sweaty and the air was full of mosquitoes. I paused to watch a friendly black vulture named Gauch, who was very activated by the visitors. You could see right through the nasal passages in his striking bone-gray beak. “This playful personality was separated from his parents while young and bonded with his rehabilitators in New Jersey,” the sign in front of his cage read. “Now this highly social bird thinks he is a person and cannot be released to the wild because he would seek human companionship.”

I had such a long to-do list. Set my dad up with Instacart. Change the electric bill to my name. Email my mother’s death certificate to Quicken Loans. Meet with the estate lawyers. Find a local snowplow to do my dad’s driveway this winter. Go to the police station to file a police report about the $2,000 I allegedly racked up at Verizon using the email address nausicaa1990@yahoo.com. Email HR and ask them why I got a paycheck in the mail for $0. Order newborn-size Medela-brand bottle nipples on Amazon. Send a thank-you note to my eighth-grade teacher for sending a children’s book and her condolences. Reply to emails. Drive the twenty minutes to my parents’ house to check on my dad and pick up the piece of paper he hopefully signed. Pick up any bills from where he leaves them on the top of the dryer in the mudroom. Take out the compost. Wipe up the coffee grounds burned onto the surface of the stove. The coffee grounds conjure a hologram of my mother wiping the surface down with familiar gestures of the sponge. 

We took care of everything and made plans to leave. I took pictures of all the pages of my mom’s photo album, where she made collages of all our family photos; pictures for my baptism, an infant lying on a white sheet surrounded by rose blooms, now lived next to pictures of baby Joseph in my camera roll. Jonah wanted to make an amateur documentary called Leaving Ellsworth, I can’t remember why. So much had happened, but we had no plot and nothing in particular we wanted to say. So we shot videos of each other walking or swimming or looking, quiet and reflective. We took a long walk, beyond the hospital, through the Trumpier part of town, and filmed the wide streets on our phones. I took a video from behind the dashboard of our car of Jonah looking one last time at a dramatic bay between Blue Hill and Ellsworth. 

When Joseph was two months old, we packed up our Maine apartment to drive back to Maryland, to a house we had barely lived in. Joseph’s age became a proxy for how long my mother had been dead.

One hot night when we were back in Maryland, I wanted to take a walk after dark. I hadn’t been outside all day. The baby had gone to bed. The dishwasher was on. Everything was in order. Jonah said he’d stay home, listening in case Joseph cried. It was September, but it was still hot and swampy and loud with the sounds of crickets and cicadas and other mysterious beings. I walked out the back door and dumped the compost in the pile in the backyard, setting down the bowl to pick up on my way back. 

People in the neighborhood are opposed to keeping compost in the backyard because, they say, it invites rats. I do it anyway. I have always wanted a compost pile, and now I have a house, so now I can have one. But I had noticed that there were holes appearing in the ground around the plastic column containing the scraps—little pills of mud all piled up. People in the neighborhood want you to use a service instead. They send a lot of emails about it. They also send emails asking how to eradicate the moles digging holes in their lawn. I didn’t want to get rid of the compost or the moles. Oh well, I thought to myself, not everyone can think I’m a good person. Some things you can’t outsource, some things you have to do yourself. And if they ever confronted me, I would quote Wallace Stevens: “Whoever founded / A state that was free, in the dead of winter, from mice?” 

In the poem, the mice all dance on the bronze statue of some human, once great. “It is a hungry dance.” It certainly feels that way in the dark, when all the animals come out to eat. I walked out to the street around the side of the house. I could see the silhouettes of bats swooping, eating mosquitoes. Rabbits barely visible were paused on the lawns. They were busy; busy chewing on the edges of human civilization. The air gave the hug of a warm bath. I heard distant laughter following the soft thumps of my chain-smoking neighbors playing cornhole. The sky was stained slightly orange with light from the Beltway, but under the trees it was pitch-black.

I’d say I’ve learned parenting isn’t complex, it’s brute force.


My hips felt sore, not from exercising, from not exercising. My joints were still loose from giving birth, my torso sank too far whenever my foot hit the pavement. A bag of bones whose vacuum packaging had been opened. 

As I got farther from my house, farther down the rows of houses, I had the feeling it would be possible to wriggle away, to slip through the fingers of who I had become, to turn into a fox or a raccoon, prancing across the neighbors’ lawns, caught in high contrast on their Ring cameras. A line from Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” played through my head: “I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets.” In the city, you feel anonymous because there are so many people and, while you remain yourself inside your own head, your body belongs to the crowd. In the suburbs, anonymity comes from being a carbon copy of everyone else. 

My mother never had that anxiety, of being too much like everybody else. Difference was written all over her body. I remember her crying whenever she felt excluded, which was often. Now she was excluded from my son’s life, too. It was her I was feeling inside myself, my decaying magnolia bloom, my rotten, shriveled core. It was her I was channeling when I became involved with the miniature dramas of my backyard—she who found it easy to see herself in the fabric of nature and hard to see herself in the fabric of humanity.

Jonah and I watched a science fiction movie not too long ago in which Earth has been deemed uninhabitable. Most people have already left. A daughter and her father, who is a scientist, are two of the few remaining people on Earth. They are trying to grow things, with limited success, because of the polluted air. And they need bees. The signals are mixed; the daughter is not sure if their experiments will succeed. The last shuttle is leaving Earth, and she decides to stay behind. It seems she will live; the air in the city may be starting to heal. Her father, it is revealed, died long ago. 

I, too, am stranded. I’ve chosen to stay behind as the last shuttle leaves Earth. It’s the end of the movie, but I still have my whole life ahead of me. And Earth feels more mysterious and frightening than when it was teeming with life, teeming with humans. How many more years of silence and reflection, emptiness and desolation lie ahead? If I was the last person on Earth, would I still get up and make coffee every day? How many more years will my only company be my mother’s dead body?

I went back inside, returning myself to myself and to our family and our lamp-lit living room. On the wall hung a framed postcard my mother had sent to my dad in 1988, just before they started dating, from a vacation stay in Okoboji, Iowa. On it she had drawn, in pen, lots of little bugs over a field of prairie grass. “Sssssss, zzzzzzz, buzz,” said the insects. “Dear Soren,” she had written in her Cubist handwriting. “Summer sounds abound.” 

My sister Jane thinks she’d like u. She wants to say hi . . .

Hi, I want a ride on your bike. Jane

So the lake is cool the nites are cooler and the motor boat is the coolest. See you soon. Judy M.

I returned to work from maternity leave, remotely still. I talked to coworkers on the phone. I tried to be open with everyone about what happened to me. But when you are totally open, other people shrink back. They are not ready to talk about life after the death of a loved one, even if they themselves invite it. People would say to me, “I’m here if you ever want to talk.” “If you ever want to talk with someone who’s been through it, I’m here. Let me know. I’m around.” 

Other people talked to me about surviving their parents’ deaths, as though welcoming me into a club—“We are scarred people,” Jonah’s uncle told me; “Mourn furiously,” someone else advised. 

“Let me know if you ever want the perspective of someone who’s a year out,” my coworker said. His father had died sometime the previous year. He had offered his wisdom a couple times before—on having a dying parent, on the virtues and difficulties of home hospice care. I hadn’t taken him up on it before but then suddenly I did. We had both seen people in unspeakable pain. Perhaps he had come up with some words for it.

“Yeah, tell me! What is it like, a year out?” He was taken by surprise. Normally, I could tell, his offer was perfunctory. He wasn’t ready to talk about it now; he wanted to talk about it at some unspecified point in the future. “Well,” he said, pausing to gather himself. Gather, gather, gather. A breath in and then: “Have you ever heard of the ball and the box metaphor?” 


“So there’s a ball inside a box.” He took it slowly at first and then accelerated. “And on the inside of the box is a button. Every time the button is pressed you feel pain. And just after someone dies, the ball is big, it takes up the whole box, so the button is always being pushed down.”

“Uh-huh.” I wanted to show him I was listening.

“And as time goes on, the ball gets smaller and it bounces randomly against the sides of the box. So after a month or two it’s not always pressing the button. But when it does hit the button, you feel just as much pain as you did right after it happened. And after a year, the ball is a lot smaller.” 

I wished he had told me a story about his dad instead. I didn’t feel closer to him at all. I felt like he was trying to hand me a tool that I didn’t need. Like I was trying to decide how to nail this coffin closed but instead of a hammer, he handed me a banana and told me to listen to a TED Talk. The metaphor was his way of containing grief. And maybe I’m just not ready to contain it yet. But I was looking down at this banana like, Is this supposed to help me? 

Later, he sent me a tweet, posted in 2017, with a drawn diagram of the ball and the box. “Here’s the ball and the box analogy I mentioned,” he said. Mentioned, I thought, as if he described it in passing. More confirmation that our conversation was marginal. 

If I had to make my own analogy, I’d say grieving is like being a lemon that someone has taken a zester to. “Ouch,” says the lemon. The lemon’s skin is raw. But the air grows a bit more fragrant and life appears fresh and vivid amid the pain.

We went to a neighbor’s backyard party on Halloween afternoon. It was chilly, but the children were spread out on a blanket on the lawn: peas in a pod, a cow, a Wookiee, the caterpillar from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a pumpkin with a floppy renaissance cap. There were eleven first-time moms in a three-block radius with kids under a year old. We had a WhatsApp group. We took a group photo of our children, eleven white lumps on a picnic blanket. Did I seem different from them, to them? The old high school anxiety flared up, of wanting to be accepted and wanting to be recognized. Was I a carbon copy of them, too, or did they accept me because we were a crowd? 

Joseph, a jack-o’-lantern with a hood, was relentlessly scooching to the edge of the blanket and pulling up grass to shove into his mouth. Jonah sat near him, grabbing him by the waist whenever he got too close to the edge and dragging him backward, unfurling his cold hands and picking blades off them. I thought about apologizing for the bald spots on their lawn, but I didn’t.

I talked to one fellow mom who was astounded that Joseph was already crawling. She made me feel embarrassed. “You know this is really unusual, right?” I wanted to protect him from her jealous praise. She mentioned that she had to have a good cry when her daughter started eating solids. I knew what she meant. Joseph had a purity about him when he was just drinking breast milk. I could say he was wholly made by me. Feeding him food felt like polluting him. It turned his shit dark and thick. (This morning he ate an entire banana. What?!) Another mom said she cried when her kid slept in a separate room for the first time. 

Fleetingly, I felt a physical closeness with her—the last I will ever have.


I knew what they meant, but I had never cried about Joseph growing up. I should be sad like that, I thought, about Joseph shedding ways of needing me. Did it mean I wasn’t invested enough in my son if I didn’t feel his individuation as an amputation? My analyst pointed out that I may find myself feeling happy for Joseph when he goes out into the world and enjoys himself. But it would be so unlike my own childhood that the feeling may be alien to me.

“What’s the most surprising thing about becoming a parent?” my husband’s friend Mike asked me. We were sitting in a bookstore/record store on a cold fall day in Richmond, Virginia. We had driven down for the day to remind ourselves that we could. “Breastfeeding,” I said. I had been looking forward to not being pregnant anymore, to being able to move how I wanted and consume what I wanted. I hadn’t realized that birth does not free you, physically, from the baby. He didn’t have much to say in response. What about you Jonah? Jonah responded by telling him what he’s told everyone: He’s surprised parenting isn’t hard. Or not as hard as he thought it was going to be. 

I have a secret shame when he says this. My boss’s wife, who has four kids, recently came up to me at an event after Jonah had told her the same thing. I can’t remember her exact words, but she said something to the effect of, “Sorry to criticize your husband but he is being sexist when he says that. It’s not hard for him.” I wasn’t sure if she was trying to speak on behalf of me or herself or women everywhere. Oh God, I thought, is she right? I don’t think parenting is particularly difficult, either, though I would say it differently. I’d say I’ve learned parenting isn’t complex, it’s brute force. It’s remaining awake when you’re sleep-deprived. I actually find myself wanting it to be more intellectually challenging than it is; I find myself wanting to invent a pedagogy. I want to feel like I’m making decisions about how to raise my son. But instinct, which is much wiser than pedagogy, takes over.

I live “in the land of turkeys in turkey weather,” as Wallace Stevens wrote. There was a giant blow-up turkey set up on a lawn down the block. It wore a pilgrim hat and a checkered bandana and a large red snood hung down its face. It was there last year, too: a comedown from Halloween decorations and a ramp-up to Christmas. Our neighbors’ kid liked to touch the turkey, stroking it with her tiny hand. That’s right, Clarissa. (Pat pat pat.) Gently. . . . Gently!

I wondered if I could still hold Joseph’s hand long enough to trace it and draw him a hand turkey. His instinct was to grasp, so his hands stayed for much of the day in tiny fists. They had to be unfurled to clean. His palms were always wet and full of fragments of my hair. His other instinct was to wave his arms and smack his hands down. It is delightful to put different things under him to smack—a table, a tray full of food, the rainbow xylophone on the back of the plastic green alligator. Sometimes he would oblige to holding a rattle and waving it around violently. Gentle, Joseph. 

Children are small but strong. We have to remain just barely stronger than them. Joseph could budge an entire chair from his position on the floor. But if I sat on the chair, it wouldn’t go anywhere.

The more meaningful your life is, the less happy it’s possible to be. That’s what I’ve been thinking lately. The more you occupy yourself with the Big Stuff—the tragic, the political, Life and Death and Truth—the less whimsical you can be, the less frivolous. Of course, that’s not how I felt when my life was simpler. Before I was carrying this weight around. Before my entire life changed. When my life was simple, I craved tragedy. I didn’t want happiness, I wanted sadness I could sublimate. I wanted things to happen that would give my life purpose and direction. This is not what my husband would say. He would say, “Duty to others is a relief. Your life should not be your own.” His love language is acts of service. Also, he has not yet suffered the death of a parent. Now that my mother is dead and my baby is born I know that hard stuff is actually hard.

My mother-in-law told me that I’m a natural mother. It’s a compliment! She wasn’t expecting it. She thought I would be anxious about whether I was doing everything right. But look at me now. The intellectual gets right down on the floor and plays with the baby. The green plastic alligator was staring up at me from the rug with a frozen and knowing smile, uncanny and immortal. All these baby toys look to me like they could suddenly emerge from suspended animation. “The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary,” wrote John Berger. “Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.”

In January, a deer sat down in our backyard. We looked at it from our kitchen. This sitting was so awkward, we weren’t sure if we had ever seen a deer sit down before. First the front legs buckled, putting its body at a dramatic downward angle—like an accent grave in French—and then the back legs. The deer’s belly was rotund. Was she pregnant, or just fat for winter? She looked a little old, a little gray, a little mangy. Her eyes had lines of black around them, like the eyeliner I had decided to wear for no reason, and she sat placidly, not bothered by Joseph’s screams from behind the storm door.

It was a cold day but we wanted to get out so we went for a drive. When we got back, the deer was still there. “It’s dying,” said Jonah. “It’s dying?” I said. “Two hours ago you thought it was pregnant!” “It’s either pregnant or dying,” he confirmed. I tried to google how dying deer act, if they get lethargic, and found some kind of mite was killing scores of deer in Jersey. What would we do if the deer died in our backyard? Call animal control? 

Or, we could let it decompose; it was our private property. I heard a radio segment about someone who hauled roadkill to their backyard so that he could observe a particular kind of vulture. I learned that vultures can’t actually penetrate the skin on their own; they enter the body through soft spots and wounds. At some point, I looked again. The deer was gone, but I could still see the imprint of its body.

An orange was sitting in a bowl on our dining room table—a symbol of the spirit of life during winter. It had been there for two weeks or more, bright orange in a dark blue bowl. I was too picky to eat it by then. From the outside, you can barely tell when an orange is old. The color was vibrant but it probably already had that faint taste of rot. A hum of decay that persists under everything else, telling slow time like the half-life of grief. It reminds me of the egg on the Passover table of the family I married into: a perfect image of fertility, hard-boiled so its core is yellow and green and dry.

Signs of spring only made me remember what came the year before. An enormous bouquet sent to my mother on her sixty-fifth birthday by her semi-estranged sisters, full of guilt and love. Posing for pictures on the porch that day: her stomach swollen with liters of abdominal fluid and mine with a baby. The overexposed and oddly zoomed-in photos she took of me on the lawn, wearing skintight pregnancy leggings that I would frequently pee through. Her leaning on me as we took one pathetic lap down the road and back. How it felt to be too hot in the sunshine and too cold in the shadows. 

She felt good, having stopped the chemo, much better than she had felt in the winter. She was able to eat. She wanted spaghetti, she wanted applesauce, she wanted lamb burgers. In the package of ground lamb I brought home, there was a chunk of fat, congealed so that it looked like a small organ embedded in the meat. I threw the piece to the dog and dry heaved into the sink. She didn’t eat much of the burger. In her last burst of energy, she bought a ten-pound bag of flour and boiled an entire chicken. She had never boiled a chicken before, that I can remember. 

A year later, broth from the boiled chicken was still in the fridge. My father, who has bouts of psychosis, was also reliving the stress of my mom’s last weeks; last year, before she died, he believed he was going blind. They vaped a lot of pot together. He tied a scarf around his eyes and stumbled around the house, ending up with a gash across his nose and glass broken all over the floor, which my mom cleaned up. This year, he told me he believed the logical end point of his life was suicide. He stopped eating, and spent a week in the emergency room because the psych wards didn’t have beds available. He didn’t think he would be able to live on his own forever, but he also didn’t want to move out or meet anyone. He couldn’t imagine a future, and he didn’t have the energy to clean out the fridge. I took it all—the chicken juice with a layer of fat, a pan we’d had since I was a child filled with moldy stew from Christmas, and more broken glass—to the dump.

If people wanted to understand my perspective, I think, they would have to understand how my mother arranged her shelves, how she lined up the mess of knickknacks and stacks of canvasses, how she stenciled a line of identical roses around the top of a room. How she arranged objects was also how she arranged the different parts of me—getting angry at me, above all, when I was careless, when I broke special things or lost them. And now, they would have to see her shelves gathering dust, untouched. I got a tattoo of the rose.

In the fifteen days before I gave birth, this time last year, I sat, very still, at the plastic folding table in our crummy apartment and did jigsaw puzzles, getting used to the idea that my mother was dead and trying to detect my body preparing to give birth. 

No one knows why labor begins. Jonah said that the Talmud explains that God himself controls three things. Most things on Earth are executed by angels—the growing of grass, for instance. But God holds the keys to when babies are born, when it rains, and the resurrection of the dead.

My mom wasn’t buried. There was no coffin. There was a dark-green box made of heavy plastic. Inside there was a plastic bag packed neatly with her ashes and closed with a metal ring. Dyers Bay Crematory, a medallion on the neck of the bag read. The cremation cost $995. We had a small funeral, just me and my dad and Jonah and Joseph and my dad’s friend who came across the country to be with him. I carried my mom’s ashes down to the cove. The weight of the box felt like the weight of her limbs, which were heavy with swelling in her final months. I used to rub her arms and legs methodically to dispel the lymphatic fluid. Fleetingly, I felt a physical closeness with her—the last I will ever have.

I set the box down on the sloping, brittle seaside grass, opened the bag, and pocketed the medallion. Dyers Bay Crematory—a pun on diers? As in, people who die. My dad took the bag and walked away with it. I followed him. He crouched next to a big boulder on the shore. He dipped his finger gingerly into the bag and tapped his tongue. “Want some?” No, I didn’t. Then he put a second pinch of her ashes in a circular hole in the boulder that used to hold the pole for a birdhouse for purple martins. Unceremoniously, he walked out to a rock over the high tide and turned the bag upside down and she fell into the water.  

A couple of years ago, I had a dream that I was standing on the bank of a river with my father. The landscape looked like a Thomas Cole painting from The Course of Empire: pink and orange light fell across dramatic clouds, and there was a small, white ruin on the top of a steep slope dotted with sheep. It looked like the Parthenon: columns broken off halfway up, a quiet desolation where there were once streams of people. We stood at the bottom of the slope facing the water. There was a canoe in front of us, tethered to the shore, with a woman lying down on the bottom. The woman in the boat did not look like my mother though she probably was. We untethered the boat and pushed it off from the shore, which required some work, as the water pushed it back to us at first. Finally, the canoe was caught by a current and floated downstream. The woman in the canoe stood up and watched us as she floated away. My father asked me, “Did you remember to light the funeral pyre?” I had not remembered to light the funeral pyre. 

It felt like I was complicit in sending someone off to die who was not fully dead yet. She used to talk about wanting to be buried and not wanting to be cremated because she was afraid of the fire. She imagined the cremation to be like the fires of hell. But eventually she gave in to my dad’s insistence that she be cremated. Why did he insist? I think that if she were dead, he wanted her to be nowhere. Maybe he found graves undignified. Philip Roth wrote in Patrimony that one has no interesting thoughts in a graveyard; they reduce even the most interesting of thinkers to existential banality. I always thought how unfathomable it is that each stone on the ground represents someone who was loved. Or, more importantly, hated. It would be interesting, I thought, to know all the stories of hatred that lay around me.

My mother died, my mother was cremated. My mother returneth into dust; the dust is of the ocean; of the ocean is made rain. And why of that rain, whereto she was converted, might not fall around me now? God controls when it rains.

Last year, at this time, the first thing I felt when I left my mom’s body in the hospital room—when I closed the door on her body and walked past the nurses’ station and out to my car and drove my car out of the parking lot and past the hospital window beyond which she lay—the first thing I felt was that we, she and I, had left material life behind. One of her sisters texted me: You are closer to your mother now than you ever were in life. I was floating . . . at the moment of her death she had taken me on a hot-air balloon ride and now we were looking at the Earth together from above as I drove on the stripe of road between Blue Hill and Ellsworth. Eventually Joseph and I would glide back down to Earth and she would just keep rising and spreading out over everything I saw. 

It was warm and sunny. The first day of the year when summer’s happiness finally seems possible again. She always made note of the moment in the spring when you could throw off your winter jacket and a weight lifted. I had told my mom, in my last monologue to her, that hope was in the air. Joseph, about to be born, was a bud of flower petals blooming, and she was the outside ring of petals, falling off and blowing away.

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