Emma Carlson’s Embedded in a Pause

May 2, 2016 by

Emma Carlson’s Embedded in a Pause

Personal Essay


My Parent’s Wedding

Someone painted the scene with watercolors before the people sat down in it. A residue of flowers clung to the bristles of the brush and dissipated on the damp page, leaving any white space tinged with pink, and the faces rosy. Sitting cross-legged in the grass, my grandmother, centers the frame, pulling in the edges, the light playing off her glasses and simple smile, a ripe tomato held in one hand. On either side of grandma, two women rest large metal bowls in their laps, knives waiting to slice into delicate flesh and reduce several banana boxes of vegetables to giant vats of Pico de Gallo for the wedding.

The Last Trip to Grandma’s

My grandmother is not really a person in my mind, but a collection of reasons that you give to your daughter as an explanation for the time that you went to counseling, a row of little filled-in boxes running down the left hand margin of a medical form. The woman smiling at her daughter’s wedding wasn’t home during our last trip to Arizona. She sat and watched us eat banana popsicles and sort belongings into Rubbermaid tubs on the brittle back lawn. Someone handed me a porcelain figurine with curly blonde hair and over-dilated pupils, she stood on a tiny white metal frame wearing white Mary Jane’s, a showpiece more than a toy. The doll came back to Oregon with us; she must have been intended as a gift but felt like the fulfillment of an obligation.

The First Phone Call

I watch as the facts fall on my father’s consciousness, the voice on the telephone wants to know if my dad is related to Roy Carlson. The man is the Sheriff’s Deputy at the station in Peoria Oregon where my grandpa owns a rental. The Peoria house: a common topic of conversation for my father and his, Roy inquires about tile and wood while my dad shouts the names of potential sub-contractors over the phone into faulty hearing aids. The man continues: “He must have fallen down the stairs and hit his head, the neighbors found him, it may have been a couple of days. Is there anyone else I should contact?” Oh, god… Carly, his daughter, she’ll be flying back from Philadelphia for Spring Break next week and Virginia, his wife Virginia will still be in Mexico. “No, but thank you so much for the call.” The stranger is very sorry for our loss.

The volunteer rhubarb made an appearance today in the perpetually damp earth where the dairy used to stand. They tore the structure down in the summer, concrete floors heaving under excavator blades, splitting along predetermined seams. Our temporary home ceased to exist in less than a week, performed a graceful exit in the span of an airplane ride. The sudden loss must be less painful than to have witnessed its disassembly. I imagine it similar to the fading arc of an Alzheimer’s patient, first stripped of its identity; pictures and memories torn from its walls, left only a placeholder in a few hearts, before its final exit.

My mom crouches in the garden, slicing new growth from the Rhubarb plant. Red shoots rinsed under the water spigot, lay sorted on the grass where the dairy used to stand. By the time she reaches the house, Roy is dead. We are out of sugar and the neighbors offer theirs, she leaves the house with an empty yogurt container and a set of measuring cups. Death is isolated, my dad loses his father, my mom makes a pie.


Christmas of 2005

My family is Elk hunting on the West Coast. The ground is wet and failing to absorb thirty inches of ruthless rain, papa is gone; this sleeping bag is my Christmas present. My mom starts the truck and we drive away on the damp leaves plastering the pavement. A note may rest on my dad’s pillow explaining our quest for breakfast burritos, though my ten year-old self has her doubts. The restaurant is closed, but I still peel back warm tinfoil and chew through flour tortilla, scrambled egg, and pork sausage in my mind.

We search for gifts in Newport, scarves and winter gloves, nonspecific, fit for the likes of unfamiliar relatives. I ask for an Alpaca hair teddy bear and am refused. We drive to Portland, damp Portland suburb, shag carpet, fulfilled obligations on all sides but mine.  Grandpa eats Cheerios and reads the “funnies”. Virginia incorporates politics into dinner conversation between bites of Lobster and offends an aunt.  Carly hugs with thin arms, an avoidance, encircling the absence of love. They don’t know what I like, an illusion; these family ties. My gift is a Bratz doll, a cowgirl; they don’t know what I like. My mom gives me the Alpaca teddy bear on Christmas morning, I am allergic to Alpacas.


Summer of 2009

We don’t have Bluetooth, it gives you cancer. I flip the fat purple phone open on its hinges and wedge it between the mirror and the airplane carpet ceiling. On speakerphone and full volume, the grinding of the snow tires on pavement just obscures the woman’s voice, announcing three voicemails to the interior of the flat blue car. First message sent at 1:32 PM, my grandpa’s voice emulates his writing, thin, sporadic, with a hesitance not commonly paired with eloquence. “Hello, I’m at the ranch, I don’t see anybody, so I’m just going to wait here on your porch”. Roy’s voice incites dread, instantly. Slivers of guilt are embedded in this conditioned response, but they can’t reverse the years that bred this second hand contempt.


The Second Phone Call

Our house is small enough for three people, well suited for two; sound doesn’t carry, but remains, a fixture above our heads. Virginia is fearless and incredibly opinionated, but tonight she reveals her vulnerabilities to the walls of this tiny room. She divulges everything, careless in her grief. Anger can’t taint the shredded bits of naked love and pain released from her mouth. “He was alone Eric, he was all alone.”

I have always assumed that since my grandparents were vague, distant fixtures in their children’s lives, the fact would overshadow any future attempts at love that they might make. But tonight, his voice suspended in the air, my dad speaks to the fragments of his mother-in-law, torn apart by that same seemingly impossible love. She whispers an inaudible declaration into the phone, embedded in a pause, lies his answer, “I love you too.”


Emma Carlson, recent high school graduate and former intern for the literary nonprofit Fishtrap Inc. enjoys reading and baking in her spare time.

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