My mom has these notes she wrote out in cursive called “Tales of a Nightingale”. I asked her to let me read them and I thought I could put her experiences as a student in nursing school into a story about my experiences at the same age and see what similarities and differences were left staring at me from this odd assortment of words on a page.
I had to get some whiskey to even begin deciphering her hand writing. I love cursive. It reminds me of old hand-written letters, and Jane Austen, and the hope for a romance so strong they send you real mail in place of texts and emails. I could hardly read my own cursive though, much less my mom’s or my dad’s now that his hands have arthritis and shake.
My parents are getting old and I want to record their stories, because that’s what I do everyday. I record everything, whether on twitter, or in notes, or with my camera, I put it into a frozen place I can back up so it’s not lost forever, and I have possessed the things I can never appreciate in the moment they occur.
“Tales of a Nightingale” she writes. “When does one start to determine a life or a career”. I was six when I determined I wanted to be an anthropologist. “How do you even know what that is? I don’t even know what that is” my dad’s work friends were baffled. I would smile at them knowing even then that I didn’t really want to but I was shy and I didn’t know what else to do and they’d say I was adorable and I’d hid behind his leg.
My mom wanted to alleviate the pain of the sick. She wanted to be a nurse. It was Christmas day and she was seven. My Nana and Peepaw gave her a child’s nursing kit, with a stethoscope and thermometer, a nursing hat, and little cups of candy to represent medication. The only person in the house who would cooperate as a patient was her brother Jack, four years old, lying like a corpse on the couch, ready to do anything he was directed to do as long as he got the red candy.
The day I turned seven I jumped up and down on my four post bed and shouted through my little apartment “I AM AN ADULT!” I felt like overnight I had turned into a woman, maybe not physically, but I understood things in a way I hadn’t the night before. I was an only child and my dad lived in a town three hours away. My mom was a nurse at the Fort Worth Air Force base, and a captain, teaching nursing to other RNs. She made a strawberry couscous cake even though I hated couscous, and dad came with little illustrations he had made of me with birds and plants and pianos. I was like a Disney character making music with anthropomorphized animal friends. Something happened and dad got mad and ripped the illustrations off the wall. He tore them up and threw them in the trash. I took one that was still mostly in tact, tore it more, and stepped on it until it looked like a piece of trash. I was an adult now.
In the 1950s children weren’t allowed in the hospital unsupervised under the age of twelve. My mom was ten. She was at school when an ambulance sped by and a teacher came up soon after and told her friend it was her dad. Mom and her brother sat with her friend in the waiting room. She could hear a doctor trying to revive her friend’s dad but it wasn’t working. The hospital smelled like rubbing alcohol. Everyone was whispering. The doctor sent the nurse out to share the news that everyone already knew.
I went to a private school when I was ten. Bluebonnet Academy. There were seven boys in my grade and one girl. There was one girl in the grade above me and six boys. The girl, Marty, was always angry. Her dad was an alcoholic and she spent most of her time in after school programs with me, while he drank and my dad worked as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor at the local prison. We were always in trouble too. She would say “you don’t like Matthew tell him he’s a motherfucker” and I would go to Matthew and say “you’re a motherfucking sonofabitch” and we would both be in the principal’s office for an hour watching Sesame Street. One afternoon her dad didn’t come and it was getting late and I usually left after her but my dad was there and she was still there doing math homework. The next day was Thursday skirt day. I had my plaid skirt and my nearly see through white shirt with the red ribbon that hung like a neck tie down the front. Marty wasn’t there. She wasn’t there the next day either. Four days later she came to school and she wasn’t angry and she wasn’t talking to anyone. The teachers told me what happened. Her dad drove off a local bridge driving drunk.
So everything was back to normal except Marty wasn’t angry or happy she just kept getting in trouble with me until one day she was expelled and I was good.
Do you remember when you played Moonlight Sonata for a crowd of mother and fathers and couldn’t remember the middle? So you started over and tried to skip the middle but you couldn’t remember the end? So you finally got up and left half-way through because it was all a mess of chords in your head. Nothing had a linear progression. Nothing ended. Nothing came together.
Marty was expelled and disappeared one day and the girl in my grade transferred to the public school. The year ended quietly with all of the boys who touched my hair and ignored me, and then I transferred to the public school.
My grandpa was a Methodist minister, and my mom studied music thinking she would sing and play piano for the local church and teach piano lessons to the local students. The local parishioners encouraged her to get a music degree and settle down but she wanted to see a new town outside of Tennessee. So she chose a nursing program. She would sing to her patients.