ALL THE THINGS WE OCCUPY
by Amanda Gaines
My mother collects daughters. In 1994, at twenty-six, she had her first. One year later she founded a nonprofit for women in Lincoln County: The Girl’s Resiliency Program. The number of women interested in joining quickly grew from around ten girls to over one hundred. Most of them came from low-income homes. Many of them were abused, neglected. My mother worked to rebuild their confidence and provide a support system of similar women available to them. Somewhere in between the rebirth of these young women, my own sisters were born—Rebecca in 2000, Olivia in 2002.
In an online ethnography, Thinking Outside the Girl Box, Linda Spatig’s introduction begins and ends the same way: by falling in love with my mother. She is described as someone who pours herself into those she works with—the physical evidence of change in these women proof that she has been there, that something she has done or said mattered enough to last. She was in constant motion. She was a fixer. She sewed small parts of herself to these women, creating a patchwork that she could trace back to herself; restored mothers, adopted daughters. Trophies and works in progress.
While she was alive, it was hard to ignore the frogs in Lee Blea’s house. Glass figurines of grinning amphibians, stuffed and sewn green bodies, and webbed hands drawn and painted alike lined my grandmother’s walls. Her fridge was covered in froggy magnets, her coffee mugs ringed with them, too. Annually, she sewed frog-printed fabric onto my sisters’ plush winter hats. My grandmother even kept a few live and colorful tree frogs in a steamy tank for a couple of years. When they died, none of us were surprised. She smoked from the time she was a teenager until the day she died last May, 2017. Her furniture was coated in a thick layer of pet hair and cigarette smoke. Even as a child, I wasn’t ignorant to the number of dogs who’d come and been buried only a few years into their stay at my grandparent’s house. Shotsy, Charlie, Poopshka. There were others; I can’t remember them all.
During visits, our mother would tuck us in on blow-out mattresses under quilted triangles where we could make out frogs dancing, kissing, riding bikes. When I was little, I thought the frogs were cute. Her house reminded me of an interactive museum dedicated to the slimy creatures. Hers was a place I associated with snuck cups of coffee while my mother wasn’t looking and truck drives squished between both grandparents. My grandmother’s living room doubled into a themed hair salon when I sat cross-legged by her feet, letting her comb my hair back and twist my yellow locks into intricate and tight braids. I was always looking for ways to be touched. Even when she pulled sharply at my scalp for looking off at the television, I translated this attention into love.
Our trips to our grandparents’ were few and far between; like my grandmother, mom left home young, citing violence and abuse as reasons to go. She was seventeen, and left behind her two little sisters to live with my great-grandmother. My grandmother and mom fought often and would go through spells of silence, each arguing that the other was insensitive and to blame for what would be labeled post-fight as a “miscommunication.” When I was young, I understood these arguments partially, but cared little about the implications they had on me. My mother and I were beginning to fight regularly ourselves; siding with mom against my grandmother after mom threw a bowl at me for leaving it out too long seemed counterproductive to my own anger.
I was twenty-two when my grandmother passed; it had been eight or more years since I’d seen her in person. Much of my memory of her was faded, insubstantial. After the funeral, my mom gave me one my grandmother’s gold brooches decorated with purple rhinestones to look like flowers and a white, hollowed-out, ceramic frog, just big enough to hold it. I thought of her collection as I placed the pieces in my bag; I’d expected more.
Psychologist and professor Mark McKinley states in The National Psychologist that “For some people collecting is simply the quest, in some cases a life-long pursuit that is never complete.” Christian Jarret of The Guardian argues that one rationale behind collecting is uncared for children’s drive to “seek comfort in accumulating belongings;” possessions as a form of emotional fulfillment that was not achieved by their parents.
My grandmother and great grandmother had stopped speaking before I was born. Mom tells me that they had a falling out long ago; that my grandmother left home young, was a go-go dancer, made and abandoned a lot of relationships due to feeling slighted or dissatisfied. The narrative my grandmother perpetuated claims that my great-grandmother didn’t care enough about her children, that she was secondary to her mother’s desires. She moved often, fell in and out of love often. She was in constant motion.
Amidst the stories, my grandmother had her collection. There were so much of it; frog mugs, animated amphibian fabric, tiny toads becoming princes once kissed by a blonde princess. Remembering my own grandmother’s box blonde hair, I can’t help but wonder if she saw herself in those porcelain princesses. How romantic would it have been: to be able to peck her problems and watch them transform—the physical ease of a kiss resulting in a fantastical metamorphosis into a better life. In the fairytale, the princess has innate power: an ability to control the natural world that my grandmother yearned for until she died. Neither labor nor effort is involved in getting what the princess wants. But she never got her wish; her frog prince life a series of angry memories that was boxed up and forgotten with such ease it seemed like magic.
“Collected objects are like holy relics: conduits to another world,” says Philipp Blom, cultural historian and writer for The New York Times. It transcends time and space; it gives the collector an emotional and place-based stamp to possess and cling to. He continues, “The objects and their organization bind us to something larger than ourselves, and as religion was born out of a fear of death and the wish of eternal life, collecting expresses the same fundamental urges.”
Readers were asked to contribute to the discussion on The New York Times database—their responses and personal stories varied and equally supportive and dissenting from these known conceptions about collecting. One reader, “Wide World,” stated that “There is perhaps another impulse to collecting that is often overlooked–the desire to impose order on an otherwise (or seemingly) disorderly world. And while this, too, is ritualistic in its nature–a way to manage anxiety, fear, and unsteadiness amidst impermanence–it is similar to the motivation that inspires art-making and story-telling as methods for making sense of life, or giving meaning to life by giving meaning to that which we collect.”
The first time my mother saw the tower of old gum I’d stacked to the back of my toilet, she threw it away. She didn’t bring it up to me, and I didn’t confront her about it, either. I couldn’t come up with a rational approach to ask why she would do this. I was in eighth grade, tall, and blocked in at weight that doctors would deem unhealthily thin. I’d recently lost a good deal of weight; self-starvation requiring willpower that I attributed in part to my trident-flavored statue. My logic was based on fear and chance; my shrinking waist and growing tower correlation without causation that I refused to consider. For weeks, my gum had gone untouched, precariously angled, but standing. After a few rounds of trial and error, I discovered it only takes a day for the composition to harden, allowing for additional pieces to be added daily, carefully. Sticking more than one wet piece at time takes skill, and must be done with precaution. It also apparently took a day for it to come down.
The second time my mother saw the tower of gum I’d started restacking against the toilet, she threw it away and confronted me. No number of tugging on each side of my earlobe or tapping the side of my door with my right hand, then my left, could save me. I imagine she thought by asking me about it, I’d fold like my gum structure disgracefully—cease and desist. After having lived off sugar-free butterscotches, raw apples and cinnamon, and Fiber One soaked in hot water for months, however, this is not what happened.
We were in the kitchen, sometime after the school day had ended. The kitchen is the designated fighting arena of our house. Constructed fully of hardwood and open to the living room, decorated with antique, checkered window blinds, hung scripture and plants, it’s always seemed wrongly suited for the venomous confrontations it holds. Today, my mother and I stalk around the kitchen table, boxers warming up. Last week, it was a flat surface for a game of Sorry and Uno. My father overwaters the hanging ivy on our ceiling beams because he’s worried it isn’t getting enough. There’s a framed picture I drew in kindergarten on the wall by the front door. There’s also space enough to gesture, room enough to retreat, tall ceilings that make threats seem to echo and resonate.
I tried to avoid it as often as I could. But when it came down to a fight or flight situation, my instincts have always stayed the same.
“Why are you doing this?” I yelled. “Don’t. Touch. My. Things.”
“Why are you doing this?” she retorted. “It’s disgusting.”
“I clearly put it there for a reason. You don’t have to understand. I don’t move your sewing materials wherever I want when they’re in my way, do I?” My eyes bugged. My already knotted stomach clenched.
“You can’t keep this up. It isn’t healthy. You need to see someone.”
“You don’t get to tell me what to do. I swear,” I growled, “The little bits of lunch I do eat will get tossed if you do this again.” My hands were clenched. Right hook. “And I’m not seeing someone.” Duck left, fake out.
“Besides,” I continued, “We both know that we can’t afford it.” I could practically hear my words crack against her jaw. A KO on impact.
Her face slackened. I’d won. She pursed her lips and walked away. My mother, like me, is better at being angry than sad. Yelling is used to show care, slammed doors a non-verbal acceptance that the other is right, drawn out silences meant to say I’m too proud to approach you first. Whoever cries first loses. Unlike yelling, crying is instinctive, a result of the body betraying the will. In my family, the value of control is learned and passed down like memorabilia.
I imagine she went downstairs to work on a sewing project she’d been at for weeks. I know my father stayed out of it. I see myself returning to my upstairs bathroom, sticking the piece of gum from my mouth onto the back of my toilet, turning the sink faucet four times with each hand. I probably pulled out my yoga mat and did one hundred crunches despite my bruised spine, feeling shitty yet safe. I don’t remember. I am getting good at not remembering things I want to forget.
I come from a long line of imperfect daughters. My grandmother misunderstood by her mother, my mother feeling unloved by her mother, me, feeling ignored by mine. How do we mitigate the emotional losses of femininity when silence is a staple in our conversations? Things, it seems, lend us some control in reshaping identities that feel inescapable. Daughters, frogs, gum: it’s all relative. Tangible tokens are forms of power that are impossible to reject—unlike love, one can’t argue their existence. My grandmother wanted to change her present, my mother, her past, myself, the future. Our stories and collections are synonymous and interwoven; shared and rewritten and miscommunicated over time. But they are there, and through them, we see ourselves: surviving through our many lives.
I’m reading free ethnography excerpts while sitting in Stick tattoo parlor waiting for my consultation to start. My mother hates tattoos, but one I’m waiting to see drawn up is for her. A simple needle and thread done in black—delicate lines I plan on putting on the nook of my arm, the inside of the elbow. I imagine her hand there—an affirmation, a stabilizing touch I know well from walking linked through malls, or when leaving restaurants. A young version of her is here, too, waiting for me on this book’s first page. “Enter Shelley: baby on one hip, bright smile on her face. Radiating enormous energy and optimism…”
It’s just started to snow in Morgantown, and my outfit seems suddenly as ridiculous as the unexpected weather: a denim suit jacket that smells like fries, an oversized and stained red shirt, and cargo pants slid on top of dirty leggings I had been too lazy to take off before leaving the house. I start crying. Heavy metal blares from unseen speakers, and I’m sunken deep into a crevice on the black pleather couch, my body folded awkwardly. I check behind me to see if anyone caught me wiping my eyes. I have an embarrassing habit of crying easily at the mention of my family. I don’t remember being this attached growing up. By the time I was eight, I was used to spending whole weekends with friends. My sisters have both told me that they don’t remember being at home at all. And I don’t really, either. I have a strong sense that many of my memories of home are embellished or half-truths I rewrite from stories my parents have told me. For such a large family, very little of us is mine.
My tattoo consultation was supposed to start at twelve, so I got there ten minutes till. It takes almost an hour to be seen. When my name is called, I’m ushered quickly to the back by Andrew, my artist, who immediately donned a pair of black surgical gloves before pulling out my illustrations.
“Is this what you were thinking?” he asks. He shows me a large deco 5 and two different images of sewing needles. One is the picture I’d sent, the other a spool. Both are beautiful, but significantly smaller than the 5 he’d drawn up. Originally, I planned on getting five tattoos from him in one session: the needle for my mother, the five for my father (his lifelong soccer number), and an O and an R for my sisters. Somewhere in the flurry of sent and received emails to the people in charge of setting appointments, important details had been lost. My sister’s initials were not mentioned. My father’s 5 was large, almost three times as big as my mother’s piece.
“Um, is there any way we can make this smaller?” I asked, pointing to the 5. “And did you get my email about the minimalistic face?” I shifted from one foot to the other, biting my nails.
“Yeah, yeah,” he replied. “You want something like this? Greyscale? ” He pulled up the picture I’d sent, and a scaled down 5. It was still significantly larger. I am not good at saying what I want. I nodded.
“So, where do you want these?” he asked, motioning to my sleeve.
“Um, I’m so sorry, but I thought today was just supposed to be a consultation.” Andrew seemed as uncomfortable as I was, both of us avoiding each other’s eyes. “I have an eye appointment in a little while that I really can’t miss,” I tried. “But I definitely want all these things,” I followed quickly. “Just not, like, right now.”
“That’s fine,” he said. “No rush.” He pulled off the gloves and led me back to the waiting room. We agreed to a time that upcoming week, but when I got in my car to leave, my stomach was turning. It would have only taken a few words of clarification and honesty on my end to get exactly what I wanted. Buckling up, I promised myself there was plenty of time to make the changes I planned for. The mock-ups he’d worked on would have to be thrown away again. I hoped he would understand.
About the Author:
Amanda Gaines is an MFA candidate in CNF in WVU’s creative writing program. She was a poetry editor for Mind Murals, the Eastern Region’s literary journal for Sigma Tau Delta, and is the nonfiction and co-poetry editor of Into the Void. She is also the new nonfiction editor for Cheat River Review. Her poetry, nonfiction, and fiction are published or awaiting publication in The Oyez Review, Straylight, Gravel, Typehouse, The Meadow, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Dewpoint, Up the Staircase, Rouge Agent, and Into the Void.