Crazy as Chocolate
What’s it about?
Izzy and Ellie were teenagers when their mother Mimi committed suicide on her 41st birthday. Izzy is now on the eve of turning 41 herself, “entering virgin time, the second half of a life unlived,” and her father, sister, and niece are about to descend on her for the emotionally charged weekend.
Mimi went through life on an emotional roller coaster. She danced in the rain, took the girls on long, exuberant car rides across Washington State, and filled the hillside by their house with hundreds of daffodils. At the same time, she also scrubbed their hands raw with Comet, and often descended into dark moods in the blink of an eye. Yet as she once declared, “Better to have a mother like me than June Cleaver.”
Now, as the weekend progresses, Izzy confronts some of the long-buried guilt that surrounds her mother’s suicide. She also comes face to face with the fact that her sister’s behavior is beginning to echo their mother’s mental agony. Wanting to spare her niece the torment she herself went through long ago, Izzy must reconsider family loyalties, even if doing so creates another level of discord in her crazy family.
more Critical Acclaim
“A gutsy, feel-good story, flecked with pain and panache.”
“This novel explores parental suicide and the impact on those left behind, and Hyde relates this in an extraordinary way. I read this in one sitting and it stayed with me long afterward.”
—Booksense 76 Pick
“In a well-written book that could be dour and foreboding but isn’t, Hyde uses her engaging characters to show the devastation of mental illness without losing sight of the power of love and humor.”
“This novel depicts the complexities of family relationships with grace and eloquence. Vivid and well written…”
—The Bloomsbury Review
“What makes Crazy As Chocolate stand out from a sea of other novels is that Hyde has created such appealing characters… [S]he writes with such clarity and panache that most will find themselves thoroughly engrossed in the book from beginning to end.”
—South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“Crazy As Chocolate is more than a simple tale of familial madness. It is a compelling, involving story of remembrance, understanding, and acceptance. Laced with dark humor, it deftly mines the ironic and the absurd beneath the tragic.”
—The Boston Globe
“Spare and sweet, Crazy As Chocolate explores mental illness and familial bonds not as black and white but as an unnerving and unyielding field of gray in which little is wholly discernible.”
—The Baltimore Sun
“A page-turner with well-molded characters.”
—School Library Journal
Where’d the idea for this book come from?
I’d written a short story in which there was a peripheral character, a mother, who was mentally unbalanced. But she was just a simple hypochondriac, and when I put the story away she kept nagging me, and I knew I had to write a novel about her and amplify her mental problems.
At the same time, my children were young, and there were many times when I felt like a horrible failure of a mother. Mimi, the mother in Crazy, embodied my worst fears. She says things I thought of saying, but didn’t; she does things I thought of doing, but didn’t. (Although just to clarify things, I was never suicidal, nor was my own dear and loving mother, who was about as sane as they come.) Mimi was me, living out my worst nightmares as a parent.
How about the title?
It comes from an Anne Sexton poem called “Live”: “Even crazy, I’m as nice as a chocolate bar.”
Anne Sexton, of course, spent periods of her life in asylums and eventually committed suicide. Mimi is not based on her, but I did feel her looking over my shoulder at times while I was writing the book.
You went with MacAdam/Cage for this book, as opposed to Delacorte/Delta. How did that happen?
This book was many years in the making, and got rejected in many forms by many people – including my former editor. “Too dark,” people said. And it’s true; the early versions of this novel were much, much darker. They were written in the third person and focused solely on the depressed mother character. It took me years to figure out that in order to capture some levity, I had to write this in the first person, and I had to have a present-day context for telling the story.
But by the time I figured that out, my original agent had left the agency, and the agent that inherited me felt the novel was too quiet for her. So here I was with a novel that I felt was in tip top condition, but with no agent to represent me. Talk about writer’s despondency. I can remember hanging up the phone and thinking: What do I do now?
What I did was I got a copy of Literary Marketplace and circled the names of all the publishers who accepted unagented submissions. MacAdam/Cage had some ties with another company in Denver that had been written up in our local paper, so I tried them. We were camping in the Grand Tetons when I checked my messages from a pay phone. There was one from Pat Walsh, the editor, so I called him back to learn that he wanted the book. “I can’t believe this wasn’t picked up by a major New York publisher,” he exclaimed. Yes, well. There was a certain satisfaction in hearing that.
ExcerptS from Crazy as Chocolate
Listen to Elisabeth Hyde read an excerpt from Chapter Twelve of Crazy As Chocolate. In the scene, two sisters describe family road trips to the far corners of Colorado with their mentally ill mother in Ethel, a dark green Plymouth, late forties’ vintage, with voluptuous fenders and shiny chrome trim and a long imposing hood.
When I went off to college, I started telling people that my mother died in a car crash. Lying comes easy when you’re raised by a liar. I said it happened long ago, when I was very young, and I always added that she died instantly and did not suffer. It was something I could easily imagine my father saying to a small child, to comfort her. Hearing this, people felt bad, but at least they knew what to say. When people learn the truth, they're always at a loss.
I even kept my husband in the dark for a long time, although to make up for the lie, I told him many things that were true. I told him, for instance, how my father did a good job raising my sister Ellie and me - how he cooked oatmeal every morning and monitored our homework and shamed us for throwing away our sandwich crusts. I told him how we got to take dance lessons and go to sleepover camp; how we squabbled over whose turn it was to set the table, or who got which Beatle to be in love with. True things, normal little things, as though we were a normal little family.
But after telling him all this, I summed things up by saying that, all things considered, I had a happy childhood. And when he found out the truth he felt a deeper betrayal than I had anticipated.
What did you think I’d do, Isabel? he asked. Walk?
Truth, exaggeration, embellishment: my mother had problems distinguishing these concepts. A woman taken with large numbers, she once tried to explain how small a molecule was. There are more molecules in a grain of sand, she told Ellie and me, than there are grains of sand in the world. It was her effort at truth, I guess, and yet as a child I found the concept hard to believe. I thought of beaches and sand dunes, I thought of the Great Sahara Desert and I wanted to say to my mother: This can't be true; you're exaggerating again. I'll never know what triggered things for her, in the end. Or what exactly was wrong. Maybe there was an umbrella diagnosis back then that covered all her symptoms, but as to where the doctors might pigeonhole her today, I don’t know. Nor will I know what caused her to unravel in the first place. Sometimes I think it was some grave parenting error on Nana’s part. Other times I'm convinced it was just in her genes, a matter of time before she finally descended into that long, loopy downward spiral.
What I do know is that I loved her. She tried to be a good mother, in spite of everything.
Tomorrow I turn forty-one. When my mother turned forty-one, in March of 1971, she locked herself in the garage and sat in a Dodge Dart with the engine running. Since then, I have spent each and every anniversary of her death with a case of emotional hiccups, getting through maybe all of thirty seconds before I flash once again on my father dragging her out of the garage, or the paramedics draping her with a sheet, or the white camellia blossoms in the dark mist. My own birthday in September was never a worry, because it's at the opposite time of year, when the light is brittle and bright and the weather is hot and there are no memories floating around.
Then last month, as I stood in line to renew my driver's license, it struck me I was about to enter virgin time, the second half of a life unlived, a life my mother never knew. I began to dread the birthday - not the years to follow, just the day itself. I made a plan: no party, no surprises, just my husband Gabe and me. We would hike the Mesa trail at the base of the Flatirons, among the dry, open Ponderosa that are so unlike the dark, damp, decaying forests in the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. All I wanted from my father was a phone call, maybe a long-distance Are you doing okay, hang in there honey. And all I wanted from Ellie (who's forty-three and should have warned me) was a simple Happy birthday from one sane sister to another. Two days ago, however, my father called and announced they'd both be flying out for the birthday weekend - he from Seattle, Ellie from New York. I protested, but he wouldn't listen. He said my birthday was a good excuse for us all to get together and besides, the tickets were non-refundable. Because he could guess what I was thinking, he offered a kind of solace. He said the age shouldn't mean anything, because my mother wasn't all there for many, many years before the actual end. I might as well have chosen my thirty-sixth birthday to get spooked by, he said, as she was thirty-six the first time she tried to kill herself. Or my thirty-eighth birthday, since that was the year she stopped taking all her medications. You're turning forty-one, he said. But you're not your mother. You have the rest of your life to live. Live it for yourself.
And I said, You're right. Nevertheless, the small dark animal that clamped itself around my heart twenty-eight years ago dug its claws a little deeper. I still miss her like it happened yesterday. I still feel responsible, still feel there are apologies to be made. And if forty-one is anything, it's an age where a grown daughter ought to be able to put these things behind her.
Heatwise it's been a bitch of a summer here in Colorado. I have eaten more salads than I care to contemplate, I sleep naked, I keep the swamp cooler on and the fans blowing all night long and still I wake up every morning to a hot blast pouring in from the eastern plains. At seven o'clock tonight, the thermometer reads ninety-four in the shade, and don't let anyone tell you that dry western heat doesn't feel hot. It feels as hot as Africa, to me.
Marriage-wise, it’s been a hard summer, too. Gabe and I have been married for thirteen years, but much of that time has been spent trying without success to have a child. It’ll do it to the strongest of couples – temperature taking, scheduled sex, month after month until you both go in for tests and you get ink blown up your tubes and he gets his sperm count tested, both of you pass and then it’s on to injections and hormones and still the basal body temperature keeps falling every month. Last winter Gabe suddenly found himself unable to get an erection whenever I was ovulating - all I had to do was remark that it was Day Thirteen and he’d start sleeping in pajamas. In response, I began to accuse him of not really wanting a child, and in his meaner moments he’d raise the genetic issue, by which he meant my mother, and by April we’d not only given up on the whole wretched pregnancy quest but decided that maybe a little time apart would be good for us.
So as of June first, Gabe took a summer sublet in town. I spent my summer nights in a hot empty bed. When his lease came up at the end of August, we took a long walk up into the canyon and came back having decided three things: one, we didn’t want to keep living apart; two, there ought to be more to our marriage than successful cell division; and three, if we really wanted a baby it was time to stop piddling around with the adoption idea and get our names on a list.
So Gabe moved back a few weeks ago. (I never mentioned any of this to my father or my sister, and no doubt I will pay a price with Ellie, who expects full disclosure on everything.) And things seem to be on an upswing - which is remarkable, given my bitchiness in the current heat wave. We kiss each other hello and goodbye, and use each other’s name, and are quick to apologize for the smallest transgression. We’ve even made love a lot, and I’m proud to say I’ve gotten right up afterward instead of lying there with my knees drawn up, the way I used to, in order to give all those spermatozoa the downhill advantage.
Now it’s Friday night and Gabe is rooting around in the refrigerator, threatening to cook despite the heat. Gabe and I met in law school, in Trusts and Estates to be precise, but Gabe was never cut out to be a lawyer because he shies away from confrontation and in fact would rather be scaling a two-thousand foot cliff than facing down an opponent in court. This passion for heights, combined with a basic instinct for business, led him to open a hang gliding and paragliding school here in Colorado. These days he teaches the sport to mostly middle-aged men in search of risk. After one day of ground handling, he takes them to the top of the rocky cliffs north of town, tells them their risk of dying is one in a thousand, and pushes them off, a culminating act of aggression for which they happily shell out a week’s salary.
White mist swirls into his face as he opens the freezer door. “What’s this?” he says, pulling out a package of meat. “Pork tenderloin, it looks like - how about I marinate it?”
“Gabe,” I say, “I’m sorry but if you cook I will puke.”
Gabe sweats easily, and doesn't understand how the heat can bother someone. He tells me to pretend it’s winter and I’ve been stuck in a blizzard all night and have just this very moment stepped into a sauna. Under less testing circumstances I would tell him to shut up. As it is, I remind him that he has offered this image before, and it doesn’t work.
Gabe must have detected something in my voice, because after he puts the meat in the microwave, he gets two beers from the refrigerator. “Bad day?”
I haven't told him this, but I have an ugly case right now where the grandparents are seeking custody of their grandchild, a ten-year-old girl whose mother stays locked in her room because she is one hundred percent convinced she is going to poison her daughter: she might mix ammonia with bleach, say, or give her the wrong Tylenol, or too much cough syrup. When she isn’t locked in her room, she’s threatening to drive her car off Flagstaff Mountain. You'd think it’d be a clear-cut case, but the mother claims she's just being prudent, and regarding the comments about Flagstaff Mountain, she would never in a million years take her life. Next week I have to take her deposition, and I am afraid that she, like my mother, will be as charming as she is crazy.
I can be as gullible as a child, when face to face with madness.
The cold beer tastes bitter and slightly sweet. I find that if I raise my arms at just the right angle, the table fan blows straight into the valley between my breasts. I don’t really want to delve into the grandparents’ case right now.
“I thought you had a class tonight,” I say.
“Ten to one Ellie will want to go hang gliding,” I venture. My sister learned to hang glide in France, two years ago. “Will you take her?”
“Depends on whether she’s gained some weight. I don’t want her to float away.”
His joke about my sister’s quasi-anorexic state puts me on the defensive. I can criticize my family, but he can’t. As he douses the meat with soy sauce, I point out that he is going to heat up the entire house just to cook a pound of meat.
“I'm using the grill,” he reminds me.
“So? The heat will blow right into the house.”
“Isabel,” my husband says, “this is summer in America. And what do people do when it's summer in America? They fire up the grill. Now go take a shower. Take a cold shower. Take a long, cold shower, drink another beer, and go naked.”
“How am I going to be nice this weekend, when it's ninety-eight degrees?” I ask. “I really think this is not a good idea.”
“Well, nobody ever said life was fair,” Gabe tells me, as though it's the wisest thing in the world.
Here's my shower routine: soap up, check for lumps, rinse, shave, check for lumps, touch my toes, squeak my hair, check for lumps.
My mother taught me.
I don't know, Gabe, am I crazy?
I haven't seen my father in a year, Ellie in ten months. My prediction is that my father, who is seventy-one, will have lost no hair and gained no weight, and he will be wearing the same pair of chinos and blue button-down shirt that he always travels in. A dandy, my father is not. Ellie, though - well, who knows what Ellie will have done to herself?
Married to a man named Wilson whose exact business eludes everyone, Ellie lives half the year on Park Avenue and half the year in Cannes. As far back as I can remember, she has displayed a propensity for change; over the years she has worn her hair long, short, shaved, permed, corn-rowed, and dredlocked. She also has an affinity for body piercing and discreet tattoos. I have no idea what to expect, except that she’ll be wearing black, that being the only color she ever wears.
And Ellie may or may not bring her daughter Rachel, who is seven. Rachel is my goddaughter. I was there for her birth, and held her when she was five minutes old while Wilson, drunk and giddy from the success of Ellie’s thirty-five-hour labor, exuberantly tried to make out with her. Somewhere, sometime, there was a redhead in someone's family, because Rachel's hair is the color of an Irish setter's fur, naturally curly, with dizzy ringlets falling every which way. She wants to be a boy when she grows up.
The shower cools me off, and I put on a short, loose linen dress and join Gabe by the grill, where he is scraping off charred bits of some kind of flesh from last spring.
“Who-all is showing up tomorrow?” he asks.
“Dad and Ellie. Maybe Rachel.”
“What about Wilson?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it just me or is Ellie really a lot calmer when he’s around?”
“She'll be herself, whether he’s here or not.”
“She can't smoke here,” he reminds me. “Not even outside.”
“She knows that.”
Gabe bastes the meat with a dark liquid. “Not to bring up ancient history, but is she still pushing the egg thing?”
I had a feeling he would raise this issue. Like me, Ellie found it difficult to get pregnant. But she started earlier, and eight years ago, while undergoing fertility treatments, she froze a few extra eggs, thinking they might come in handy at some later date. Since then, she has decided against having another child, but frozen eggs can’t just go to waste, and about a year ago, while I was visiting her in New York, she offered them to me. I said no. While a part of me could have borrowed my sister’s eggs as easily as I might have borrowed a sweater, there were good reasons to decline the offer. For one thing, I had my doubts that Ellie would be able to relinquish her claim on any child that might have been born. And as I found out when I got home, Gabe was dead set against the idea, convinced as he was that Ellie’s eggs contained the crazy gene from our mother - the CR001, he calls it, a typo on the double helix. This rankled me, because this crazy gene could have been lurking in his genealogy too. I wasn’t wild about the idea myself, and I let the matter drop. He was never going to change his mind. My husband doesn’t get to call all the shots, but I respect how he feels, which seems like the right thing to do in any marriage.
And the issue’s moot now, since we’re no longer trying. I don’t remind Gabe of this, but merely tell him that no, Ellie hasn’t mentioned her eggs lately.
“Good. And I hope she doesn’t ask me all that stuff about my brother, either.” Gabe had an older brother who died in Viet Nam. Every time we get together Ellie probes into this area – when Gabe last saw him, and what it was like when they got the notice, and whether Gabe himself feels guilty for not having served. This is stuff Gabe doesn’t really like to talk about, not even with me, and I learned long ago not to press. But Ellie does, and that bugs him.
I glance at him as he stands at the grill, one hand on his hip, the other tonging the meat. He is a tall man, with a chiseled jaw, a heavy beard, and a high, sloping forehead. His eyes are the color of molasses, and in his left iris there is a golden fleck shaped like the continent of Africa which disappears when he gets mad. His light brown hair is fine and straight, and tends to fly off in all directions when he wakes up each morning. The diamond in his left ear is new.
“Just tell her you don’t want to talk about your brother,” I say. “She won’t bite.” Heat ripples up from the grill. There is no escape. In a few years I could get hot flashes, and then what will I do?
Here's what my mother never experienced:menopause.
“Oh, Ellie bites,” he says.
“Don’t deny that.”
“Still. Be nice to her.”
“I'm very nice,” he says.
“Be nice to everyone.”
“This isn't what either of us wanted for the weekend,” he reminds me.
“No,” I say, “but it's what’s going to happen. Please be nice.”
“I'm very nice,” he says.
This chapter takes place when Izzy is young. The family has gotten a dog, in an effort to make their lives normal; but the dog is more trouble than they expected.
Wally was a bad dog, and made our lives anything but normal. She never did get house-trained; she peed in the house when she was happy, sad, excited, bored - in short, all the time. She snuck up and grabbed food off our plates. She ran away. She chewed shoes and gloves and gnawed all the piping off the sofa cushions. Some nights she barked all night long, and whenever the doorbell rang, day or night, it triggered something in her head, and she ran upstairs and barked for hours at the dust kitties under the beds.
Over the summer my mother refused to acknowledge the problem. She'd gotten us a dog, and we were all going to love it, goddamn it. So she simply kept trying to train Wally. Per instructions, she sprayed her with the vinegar bottle when she was bad and handed out bits of cheese when she was good. But one day Wally chewed up my mother's quilt - a treasured possession that Nana had sewn from the scraps of my mother’s childhood dresses. That did it. Suddenly my mother switched from hot to cold, tied Wally to a tree in the yard, and ran an ad in the newspaper (because even she couldn't send Wally back to the pound). “Shepherd-lab mix,” the ad read. “Happy 6 mo. dog needs loving home. Current owner going overseas, must sell.”
We got a lot of inquiries, but when people came to visit, they could see for themselves what kind of a dog Wally was, and they always left, politely claiming that they were looking for something with a little more Shepherd in it, or a little less energy, or blue eyes, or brown eyes. ADBW, my father would say when they left. Any Dog But Wally.
Then we got a call from a friend of a friend who had heard about Wally and her problems. He lived over on the Olympic Peninsula and offered to give Wally a warm bed, a long stretch of beach, and all the patience in the world. It seemed too good to be true, so when he offered to come get Wally the next week, my mother interrupted and said that we would be glad to bring Wally to him the next day. We've been meaning to visit the Olympic Peninsula, she told him. Wasn't there a rain forest over there?
Why, yes there was.
Which meant another day trip in Ethel.
My mother had always had an unsettling devotion to this car. Ethel was a dark green Plymouth, late forties’ vintage, with voluptuous fenders and shiny chrome trim and a long imposing hood. My mother had bought the car second-hand, naming it after the character on I Love Lucy. Ever mistrustful of certified mechanics, she quickly learned how to change the oil and replace the spark plugs and adjust the brakes herself.
My father, who drove a Buick, could only borrow Ethel, and only with my mother’s permission; and if she had any say in the matter she'd go along and sit right beside him, barking instructions like a driver ed teacher. Don't rev the engine. Don't lug the engine. Don't ride the clutch. Slow down. Speed it up for heaven's sake Hugh you ninny.
What she liked most was to go exploring on her own. Gas was cheap, and she would take Ellie and me on day trips to the far corners of the state - through the snowy Cascades, down into Wenatchee, over to Spokane, or up into the rolling rocky hills near the Grand Coulee dam. Never one to plan things in advance, she'd wake us on a summer morning and hustle us into the car and tell us we'd get a hot dog for lunch somewhere and please not to read in the car because she didn't want anyone getting carsick. And off we went, with no map, no itinerary, just the three of us and the wide open road.
Whenever she drove, my mother wore her red cat-eye sunglasses, red lipstick, and a red silk scarf tied around her head. At the start of each trip she settled herself into the driver's seat, and took the scarf from her purse, and in one fluid motion she pinched its two opposing corners, stretched it across the bias, and sent it billowing upward to land like a kind of parachute over her head. Then she lifted her chin and deftly knotted it underneath. She had this bracelet, too, that she wore only on these road trips, a costumey piece made of dozens of colored glass pipes that dangled from a copper chain. Ellie and I called it the hula skirt bracelet, and privately fought over who would inherit it.
The Plymouth was huge, especially for two girls and one ninety-five pound woman. Ellie and I could easily lie down across the back seat, which we often did when it was dark, because sometimes my mother would miscalculate and we would be miles from home at nine in the evening. Then she would stop at a gas station and telephone our father, who would scold her for her lack of planning, and for the rest of the trip Ellie and I would lie down in the back, our bony knees raised, gazing up at the stars as we drove through the night with the warm road rumbling beneath us.
During the day we always rode up front. Here we fought, because the front seat was divided into two plump square sections, and whoever sat in the middle got the prickly frayed edges of each half sticking into her back. My mother tried to convince us that the middle seat was better, since it was right next to her, but we were not convinced. So she made us alternate every fifty miles, which meant that whoever got stuck in the middle spent most of her time scrutinizing the odometer instead of watching out the window.
There were no seat belts, and Ellie and I would ride on our knees - happy, usually, to be going somewhere we had never been before. I loved to roll down the window and stick my arm out with my hand cupped against the wind. This was dangerous, my father had warned us; we could get stung by a bee that way; but my mother let us do it, because she agreed that it felt marvelous, and that the likelihood of a bee sting was not very great.
“Your father thinks every risk is a big risk,” she told us, blowing cigarette smoke out of the corner of her mouth. “ Mr. Boring. Mr. Take A Nap and Prune the Crabapple. You know, every time we have sex he thinks I’ll get pregnant. He will never ever ever just play the odds.”
Her smoking in the car didn't bother me, even when the windows were rolled up. I liked the saturated smell. It smelled like home, like my mother's bedroom to be precise, since she often smoked late into the night and if either of us had a bad dream we were always welcome in her bed. She chain-smoked as she drove, and when we stopped for gas Ellie and I had to empty the ashtray, a dirty job for which we were each given a dime, which we spent on frosty bottles of soda from an ancient rattly machine.
We were excited about the trip to the Olympics, because that was a part of the state we'd never visited. Even my father wanted to come along. It was a clear Saturday morning in late summer, and we set off early with my mother at the wheel and my father in charge of a picnic hamper he’d packed with ham sandwiches. Ellie and I sat in back with Wally.
We were just getting onto the highway when my mother threw up her hands and shrieked, “Oh my God, we're going to hit a hundred thousand miles on this trip!”
“Hands on the wheel, Mimi,” my father said.
“This is so exciting,” my mother said, turning back to the road. “ Most cars blow up before they reach a hundred thousand miles but not this car,” she said, patting the dashboard. “Not this baby. She's got another fifty thousand left in her, I'd put money on it.”
“You take good care of a car, it'll last forever,” my father allowed.
“We'll celebrate today,” my mother said. “Where do you think it'll happen? Before or after Sequim?”
“Before,” I said.
“After,” my father said.
Ellie wasn't interested in odometer readings.
“Let’s see. If this car lasts another fifty thousand miles, it’ll be the car I go off to college in. That'll make a stunning impression,” she said.
“Don't you sound like a teenager,” my mother remarked.
“Oh, shut up,” Ellie said.
My father turned in his seat. “Don't talk that way to your mother, Ellie.”
“You shut up, too,” Ellie said, opening a book. She had wanted to spend the day with her friends, and when Ellie was in a bad mood, she tried to get the whole world in a bad mood with her. “Get this stupid dog away from me.”
“Come here, Wally-girl,” I murmured, pulling the dog close to me. Wally had gotten into the garbage the night before and was farting like crazy. Every few minutes there was a fresh blast of cabbage gas. I felt sorry for the dog, who had no clue that we were going to abandon her later that day.
We headed south toward Tacoma. The August sky was blue and cloudless, the blazing cone of Mount Rainier out to dwarf the snow-tipped peaks of the Cascade Range. Even the Olympic peaks rose high and clear to the west, and I tried my best to ignore Ellie's bad mood and enjoy the ride. I'd never been to the Olympic Peninsula before, and I wanted to see these rain forests my mother was talking about, see if indeed there were parrots and monkeys and rivers full of piranhas.
“This dog could send a rocket to the moon,” my father remarked.
“Yeah, open a window,” Ellie said.
“No, don’t, I have a sore throat,” my mother said. “It’s not that bad.”
“I’m going to suffocate,” Ellie said.
“Well you just go right ahead,” my mother replied.
We had just crossed the Narrows Bridge when my mother slapped my father on the knee. “Hugh! Wake up! It's ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine! Wake up, girls!”
“I'm not asleep,” Ellie grumbled. “I’m dead.”
“This is a big moment,” my mother said. “Here it comes – one more mile! Oh, you’re entering a new stage of life, baby,” she said. “One more hill. Point seven!” she informed us. “Point eight!”
One hundred thousand miles on an old car: it didn't strike me as anything to get excited about, but my mother honked the horn and rolled down her window and yelled and waved her free hand in the wind.
“Isn’t this thrilling?” she demanded.
“Isn’t this just the most amazing car that ever lived?”
But my mother's mood plummeted as the day wore on. Wally's new owner, this blessed man with an ocean of patience, lived outside of Sequim, and we followed his directions down a long straight road through a tidal plain, then a right hand turn, and down another long straight road, until we reached a shack of weathered wood. Outside, the air smelled of ocean breezes and decaying fish. I don't remember much about the man except that he had a splotchy purple birthmark on his neck, which I tried not to stare at. Wally raced around the shack four or five times; she trotted with her head down along some unseen loopy path, squatted briefly, then rejoined us and sat down.
“She likes walls,” Ellie told him. “That's why we named her Wally. Are you going to keep her name?”
The man squatted and rubbed Wally behind the ears. “Hey Wally,” he said. “Hey Wally girl.”
“She chews things,” my mother blurted out.
“Dogs chew,” he agreed.
“Pillows and quilts,” my mother said. “In all honesty.”
I could tell she was getting cold feet, and hoped this sudden streak of honesty would fizzle out before the man changed his mind.
He merely said he'd like a few minutes alone with Wally, to make sure he and the dog could be buddies. My father herded us into the car, where he turned on a ball game. I watched the man play with Wally. He threw a stick. Wally sat down. The man threw another stick, trotted after it, picked it up, waved it about, and threw it again. This time Wally chased it, though she did not retrieve it but rather trotted around the yard holding it proudly between her teeth. She would learn. Such a simple game, I thought. Why hadn't we thought of that? It is not as hard as it might seem to give away a dog. I expected to have second thoughts, but I didn't. Wally had a good home, a place to run, an indestructible house with no pillows to chew. Most of all she had a new owner who seemed to speak her language, and I pictured them down on the floor together, barking at the walls, or howling at the moon.
My mother, however, was having a hard time. She nuzzled Wally and smoothed her ears, and whispered something, until finally my father put his hand on her shoulder. “Time to go, Mimi,” he said gently, but my mother took it the wrong way, because she said, “Don't be so fucking condescending, Hugh,” and she stood up and walked stiffly to the car, to the passenger's seat this time, and got in.
Nobody said anything as we drove away. I thought we'd done the right thing for Wally, but not for my mother, and I was angry at her for claiming the moment, when it should have been Wally's. Always she managed to make us feel sorry for her, when we were supposed to feel good about something else. Before we turned the corner I took one look back. Wally and her new owner were chasing each other around the yard.
At least Wally could now have a normal life.
Back in Sequim my father suggested that we get an ice cream before heading home.
“Home?” my mother said. “Kind of a waste of gas, don't you think, to come all the way over here and not even see anything but one dumpy little town?”
“Where were you thinking of going?” my father asked.
“Well the girls would like to see the Hoh,” my mother said. “And I've never seen a rain forest. Have you?” My father admitted that he hadn't, but pointed out that the Hoh was probably a good five-hour drive and we'd have to turn around as soon as we got there.
“Of course we couldn't just get a motel room,” my mother said, lighting another cigarette. “You don't have your pajamas or your shaving kit, I don't have my diaphragm, God forbid we do anything spur of the moment.”
“Mother?” said Ellie.
“What's that, peanut?”
“Shut up and quit picking on Daddy.”
My mother stubbed out her cigarette, only half-smoked, and lit another. “That's the third time today, Ellie,” she said. “I told my father to shut up once. You know what he did?”
“He whipped me.”
“So whip me,” Ellie said. “Just quit picking on Daddy.”
“I don't believe in whipping children,” my mother said.
“I got whipped enough when I was a child. My father had a leather strap and whipped me whenever I was bad. One thwack for every year. I was twelve when I told him to shut up. Figure it out. I have scars, don't I, Hugh?”
My father cleared his throat. “Let's see just how far the Hoh is,” he said, and he began unfolding the map with one hand as he drove.
“And Nana herself just stood by and watched,” my mother said. “Can you imagine? A mother watching her own child get beaten like that?”
“Could you just apologize, please, Ellie?” my father said.
Ellie shrugged. “Sor-ree.”
“Oh, don't be sorry,” my mother said. “You had every right to tell me to shut up. I nag your father, I nag him way too much and some day, you know what? Some day he's going to dump me. Aren't you, Hugh?”
“No, Mimi, I'm not going to dump you. Look, here's the Hoh,” he said, pointing on the map. “It's a long way but if you want to go, we'll go. What's the vote?”
“Go,” Ellie said.
“Go,” I said, hopefully.
“I don't care,” my mother said.
To get to the Hoh River, where the rain forests are, you have to drive from Sequim up to Port Angeles, then inland and down, making a large "C" around the Olympics.
It would have been a good four-hour drive, but in fact we never made it past Lake Crescent.
My guess now is that my mother must have been so preoccupied with Wally those last few weeks that she simply forgot to check the oil. This was unlike her. Usually she checked the oil herself every time we got gas. But I guess everyone forgets to check the oil once in a while. Anyway, the Plymouth died just as we were approaching Lake Crescent from the east. My father was driving, and my mother was looking out the window, not saying much of anything. My father had tried to get us all involved in some car game, I Spy or I Packed My Grandmother's Trunk, but my mother's silence, her purposeful withdrawal, dampened everyone’s mood. I began to think that my father should have stayed home; my mother and Ellie and I could have come by ourselves, and it would have been just another trip in Ethel, and there wouldn't have been any of this tension between my parents. My mother's dark moods always deepened when we were together as a family these days.
As we rounded a bend, the lake came into view. It was long and narrow, curved like its name, nestled between steep mountains. “Oh, isn't it pretty,” my mother said, “look, girls, look at the lake,” and we all looked out at the steely gray waters, which rocked and danced in the wind, spilling over with whitecaps and sending choppy waves splashing against the rocky shoreline. It was beautiful in a primitive way, especially with the mist gathering in the peaks above. The road was hilly, and my father was continually shifting, and it was during one downshift that the Plymouth gave out its first deep, prehistoric grinding sound.
“Jesus, Hugh, put the clutch in,“ my mother said, but my father said it had nothing to do with the clutch, and he gave the car a little more gas, and the engine shrieked as though a chainsaw had just hit metal.
“Jesus Mary and Joseph!” my mother exclaimed.
My father steered the car to the side of the road, and we rolled to a stop at the edge of a steep wooded hillside that dropped precipitously to the lake. Smoke seeped from the perimeter of the hood. My father told us to stay in the car and he and my mother got out and raised the hood.
“Car's dead,” Ellie told me.
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“Cool,” I said.
She looked at me and laughed. We both laughed. We liked the Plymouth, but the thought of shopping for a new car, something with bucket seats and front and rear speakers, was far more thrilling than the idea of going off to college in an antique.
Outside our father took out a handkerchief and wiped his hands while our mother stood with her back to us. “You girls stay here with your mother,” he said, leaning in through the window. “I'm going to hitch a ride to the nearest garage.”
“Is Ethel dead?” Ellie asked.
“No. She ran out of oil.”
“Is that serious?” Ellie asked.
“Pretty serious. You wait here with your mother,” he said again. “I'll be back as soon as I can.”
“What are you going to do?” Ellie said.
“Get a tow truck,” my father said. “Now keep your mother company. Tell her about school. Tell her about your friends. Don't let her start talking about Nana again, or Wally. All right?”
“All right,” said Ellie.
“All right,” I said.
“And don't go anywhere else,” my father said.
“Where could we go?” Ellie asked, with pronounced rhetoric; she knew her role right now, which was to take charge. My father conferred with my mother, then zipped up his jacket and went and stood by the side of the road until a car came along. He waved it down, conferred with the driver, then climbed in and they drove off and we were alone.
My mother had gone over to the edge of the embankment and was looking down through a tangle of branches and vines to the water below. We got out of the car and joined her.
“What happened?” Ellie finally asked.
“Ethel's out of oil,” she said. “Ethel blew up.”
“Don't you check the oil all the time?”
My mother smiled at the trees. “You mean you forgot?”
“That's right,” my mother said. “I forgot. One hundred thousand miles,” she said, running her hand along the hood. “She had a lot of life left in her.”
I began to get scared. “What'll happen? Will she go to a junkyard?”
“Definitely not!” my mother exclaimed. “Can you imagine, people taking her bumper one day, her turn signal the next? I don't think so.”
I glanced into the engine, which was still smoking, its innards black and twisted and dangerous-looking. I thought this must be a terrible day for my mother, to lose both her dog and her car in the span of two hours.
“We could get her towed back home,” I suggested. “You could fix her yourself.”
“No, that's beyond me,” my mother said. “I'd end up putting her on cinder blocks and waiting for one of you to find a boyfriend who likes to tinker with cars. Not a good life,” she said. “Ethel deserves better.”
I didn't know what she meant by that, but I didn't ask. Instead I went over and sat down on a rock. I wondered how far away the nearest gas station was, and how long it would take my father to get back here. I thought of his warning to Ellie and me that we keep the conversation centered on easy subjects, like school and friends, but I couldn't think of anything to say. “… or maybe a Mustang,” Ellie was saying.
My mother didn't seem to hear, because she suddenly excused herself and opened the car door and sat down in the driver's seat. For a few minutes she just sat there, gripping the steering wheel with her eyes closed. Then she leaned over and began rummaging through the glove compartment, stuffing papers into her pockets.
“What's she doing?” Ellie asked nervously.
“I don't know.”
“Dad said don't leave her alone. Maybe we should get her to play Hearts.”
My mother said she wasn't in the mood. “Rummy?” I said. “Gin?”
“No, thanks, girls,” my mother said. “I don't really want to play cards right now.”
“How about if we sing,” Ellie offered. “That'll pass the time.” And without waiting for an answer, she began to sing the song “Found A Peanut,” but it seemed inappropriate, being as it was about a kid who eats a rotten peanut and dies. Not wanting to give my mother new ideas, I started singing "Moon River," which my mother often sang to us at bedtime. My mother leaned back and closed her eyes.
“We had some good trips in this car, didn't we, girls?” she sighed, striking a match and lighting a cigarette. “Remember the trip to the San Juans? Remember Ethel on the ferry? Once when you were babies I drove her to Vancouver and back in one night, you were crying so much. I couldn't take it. I said to your father, You put the kids to bed tonight, if I have to be in this house and listen to that crying one minute longer I am likely to murder everyone! It's very tough being a mother with two small children,” she told us, “home alone all day long.” She sucked the cigarette so deeply that her cheeks hollowed out and the orange glow ate its way down the tip.
“She was a good car,” my mother went on. “Did you know you were both conceived in the back seat?”
“I thought just Izzy,” Ellie said.
“Nope,” my mother said. “Both of you. Though I guess I'm not supposed to be telling you the stories of your conception.”
“It doesn't matter,” Ellie said. “You've told us a hundred times before, only different versions.” My mother sighed. “I just can't see this car going to a junkyard,” she said. She drew once more on her cigarette, then tossed it out the window and told us to look around and get anything we wanted to keep - which, assuming as I was that the car would only be temporarily in some shop, amounted to my jacket and my Nancy Drew and that's it. I left my stash of Lik-A-Maid, my Cracker-Jack ring, even my picture of John Lennon making a face. My mother got out and began tossing tools and jackets and boots and empty cans of oil into a pile on the gravel. When she was done she dusted her hands on her pants.
“Go over there and stand by that big rock,” she told us, and we obeyed. She sat down in the driver's seat, and turned the steering wheel all the way to the right, and batted the stick shift back and forth. Then she stood up and, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the doorframe, she braced her feet and began to push. The car was on a sandy shoulder, with the right front wheel a few feet from the edge of the drop-off, and my mother pushed and released, and pushed and released some more, and the car began to rock, a little bit forward, a little bit backward, a little more forward, a little more backward. My mother gave it a good hard push, and the ground began to give way, and clumps of dirt and rock began raining down the steep incline into the lake, and with one great final push the Plymouth slowly rolled over the embankment, snapping off branches until finally it landed upside down with a resounding crash in the rocky waters of the lake below.
After what seemed like a very long time, Ellie and I joined my mother and all three of us peered over the edge. There, far below us, the car lay overturned like a giant bug. I couldn't say anything but merely stared at a car that just that morning had reached its hundred-thousand-milestone, coasting along a highway with four people inside, four people who sat on warm dry seats and listened to a ball game on a radio and looked through unbroken windows to see the sights along their journey; and all I could think was that my mother was crazier than I knew.
For a long time, nobody said anything. Finally my mother looked at us with a queer smile that sank a stone into the pit of my stomach. “Haven't you always wanted to do something like that?” she said, nudging me.
“Truthfully? Haven't you?”
No, I thought. I have never had the urge to push a car over the edge of a cliff into a lake.
“Do you think I can convince your father that she rolled off by herself?”
“No,“ I said.
“Oh Izzy,” my mother said, “you're right, of course. I shouldn't lie about it, should I? You're my conscience, Izzy. You're my moral compass.”
I felt dizzy, then, and went to sit down on the same rock where Ellie and I had been sitting right before my mother pushed the Plymouth over the edge. If I was my mother's moral compass, then I had failed to show her the way.
Just then a tow truck crested the hill; it slowed down and pulled over to where we were standing. My father opened the passenger door and stepped out, looking around.
“She’s in the lake,” my mother said before he could even ask. “Oh Hugh, Ethel was dead. I didn't want her to go to some junkyard.”
“I pushed her in, Hugh,” my mother said with a shrug.
“I gave her a proper burial.” “You pushed her? You pushed the car into the lake?”
“Why, she rolled right over the edge!” my mother exclaimed, as though both proud of and surprised by her strength. “She wasn't heavy at all!”
My father went to the edge of the hillside and looked down. “You sank the car,” he said. “Are you telling me you sank the car? Is she telling the truth?” he asked Ellie and me.
He looked at my mother in disbelief, and stared down at the car again. He was speechless. We all were.
I think the tow truck man prevented my father from committing an act of violence that afternoon, because at that moment he stepped forward and looked down at the car and whistled. “You did that?”
“Yes I did,” my mother said proudly.
The man put his hands on his hips, and looked from my father to Ellie and me again, and suddenly he tipped his head back and burst out laughing. He laughed so hard that finally he had to take his handkerchief out and wipe his eyes, and in the meantime my mother grinned broadly, and finally my father, who'd been staring at the ground, managed a little wheeze. I laughed too, but only out of relief that the grownups were laughing. Truth be told, I was way too young to understand the concept of absurdity, and didn't see anything funny in the situation at all.
The scene ended with dignity: finally we all squeezed into the tow truck and the man drove us to the lodge at the west end of the lake, where he dropped off my mother and Ellie and me, while he and my father went to get a bigger tow truck with the capacity to haul the car up out of the water. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing board games in a sunroom overlooking the lake.
My father came back just before dinner, his hands scratched, his shirt torn. My mother didn't ask a single question about the car, and, on cue, neither did we. That night we ate lamb chops in the restaurant, and blackberry cobbler, and Ellie and I slept in a room of our own and kept the windows open, listening to the water lap against the shoreline.
The next morning, after breakfast, Ellie and I walked down to the pebbly shoreline and threw stones into the water. I asked Ellie what it all meant, our mother pushing a car into the lake. She was crazy, wasn't she? We already knew that, Ellie said. Did it mean she was going to go away to a hospital again? I asked, and Ellie said she didn't know. I asked if this was a sign that she was f to try and take a lot of pills again.
Ellie looked at me and said, Maybe, and I began to cry, because no matter how much I might have hated my mother back on the side of the road, she was still my mother, and always would be, and I would be totally and utterly lost without her, no matter how crazy she was. I was scared, standing on the beach with Ellie. All along I had thought that my mother's visits with the doctor were helping her, that she was getting better, that every day she didn't kill herself meant she was walking away from the dark and toward the light. Now I knew that every day she didn't kill herself meant only one thing - that she hadn't killed herself that particular day. Always it could happen the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. We were never home safe.
After a while our father joined us. He skipped a few stones, then stood with his arms around our shoulders, wondering out loud how Wally's first night with her new owner had gone. I'd forgotten all about Wally, and I grabbed onto the thought of that dog like a life jacket. Wally, the solution to all our problems. The dog who was going to make our family normal.
Standing there as a threesome, we heard a loon out on the lake, but the overall silence was broken by the sound of my mother’s voice. Time to go home, she called from the porch above, and for a minute I felt as though we’d simply come as a family for a nice weekend getaway. Come on up, my mother called.
We’ve got things to do