Not long before my mother died, she told me a story I’d never heard before. It was 1965, the year before she married my father. Spring had come to the Northeast nearly a season ahead of itself. By May, the fields rippled with thigh deep, green-gold grasses: sweet timothy, birdsfoot trefoil, clovers, reed canarygrass, ryegrass, and tall fescue. All the kids along Sweet Milk Road knew the species names; they were weaned on the sweat of haying, and my mother and her brother Morgan were no different.
It was a clear, bright Sunday morning—a perfect day for the first cut of the season. The fields around the farm were filled with the buzz and clang of sicklebar mowers and balers while my mother and Morgan stood toe-to-toe in a field of egg-yolk colored mustard blooms. They scrapped with one another on the strip of land between their farm and the Deitman property where no one could hear them. At first my mother laughed at her brother’s suggestion, like a late-comer for Sunday dinner who asks for the platter of fried chicken to be passed, only the plate is empty and the laughter trickles into awkward silence. She pleaded with Morgan, but he was of no mind to hear her. His decision, he claimed, was best for the family: She would marry Michael Deitman on her eighteenth birthday, and their families and land would be united, an isthmus to wealth and stability.
All of that changed when a bullet ripped through the leaves, shearing the air. Before either of them heard the sound of the report, it shattered Morgan’s breastbone and sprayed bright red blood onto my mother Lydia’s face and hair. Morgan looked at her, his eyes filled with terror, as he fell dead into the yellow mustard blossoms.
“Who did this?” I asked.
“Well.” She stammered, of course it was an accident. You have to know that, Joss. Someone was in the high birch grove shooting at the birds . . .”
I didn’t challenge her, but I wondered how she came to believe this. And who could have fired from nearly a quarter of a mile and struck down Morgan with such precision?
During those first three days before anyone else knew what had happened, my adrenaline-driven mother dragged Morgan’s body to the cottage in back of the farmhouse, and hid him in a macabre game of hide and seek—first in the closet, then under the stairwell to the cottage, and finally behind the old woodstove—all their favorite childhood hiding places. While the crows sat in the trees above and watched. On the third day she carried him to the river and washed him in the cool running water, then laid him in the tall grass.
Even when the coroner came to take him later that afternoon, she still refused to believe he was dead. She sat on the back porch all that summer rocking, worrying the floorboards for days that lingered into weeks. She did not cry or speak for months and only bathed in the river.
I think about this story as an April wind blows my red Mini Cooper along I-84 West, then tracks north along the Taconic Parkway. I try to distract myself, turning up the radio, flipping through the FM stations, but still I hear her voice.
“I had no one,” my mother told me. “My brother was the only one left, and then he was gone, too. I convinced myself that he was sitting on Heaven’s back porch. That if I waited on our rear balcony, he’d be back. I don’t know why, but I washed and ironed all of his pajamas and packed them in a suitcase. You do crazy things when you lose someone. I think that suitcase is still in one of the upstairs’ closets.”
She said she’d look for it but never did. I wonder if it’s still there. I try to push away these thoughts by doing what I always do: measure the day by road signs, or how many times I pass the same truck. An attachment from girlhood and those hopscotch counting rhymes from my school days—one-ery, two-ery, zigger-zoll, zan. . . . But on this morning I gauge my time, tapping out the minutes by heartbeat, dropped lanes, or the whirl of the car’s cozy heater and classic rock tunes buzzing in my heart like a lullaby.
It’s what my dad always did back when we all lived in the city—crank up the radio while he drove. He’d holler, “Hey, Paulie-girl! Get in the van.” With my mother scolding, “Paul! Her name is Joss Ellen—not ‘Paulie-girl!’ Not ‘Boy-o’ either!” But that name, ‘Paulie-girl,’ was lassoed around everything I knew myself to be. As a six year old, I was always ready for an adventure with my father, Big Paul.
We’d fly in that rattletrap van with the tunes blaring. He’d bring me to his tailor shop on East Forty Second between Lexington and Third. I’d jump out before the vehicle stopped, and ran through the jangling back door, hollering, “Liam, where are you?”
Liam Michaels was my father’s apprentice and an occasional guest at the farm. He’d drive upstate to play with my father’s jazz group that met there on Friday nights. I’d steal into the millhouse where they played to hear Liam’s melancholy Irish tunes flow across his fiddle strings. I used to beg him to bring his violin to the tailor shop, but he never would. He always said it wouldn’t be proper in a gent’s shop. I’d nod though I didn’t understand why, or what a ‘gents’ shop’ was.
“Liam!” I’d holler again.
“Is that you, Jossy?” he’d ask.
I could never answer fast enough. He’d scoop me up and lift me onto his shoulders, and then stand in front of the tall mirrors. I’d laugh and screech, terrified of being up so high, and hang onto his hair or squeeze my arms around his neck.
He’d cough and choke. “Tell the truth, girl! Are ya trying to kill me, or do you just like me that much?” He’d pull my hands away and grab me around my waist. “Oh my God!” he’d say. “Look at that two-headed thing in the mirror.
“It’s me, Liam,” I giggled, all the while reeling in woozy panic. My dark red curls, just like my mothers, bounced in the mirror images, and stared back at me with my father’s same grey eyes.
“There you are!” he’d point, with a goofy smile plastered across his face and a shock of black hair falling into his eyes. “How’s my girl? What are ya—on a ladder? Come down from there. I got a little bit of ribbon in my pocket I saved for ya.”
My father would barrel through the back door, yelling, “What’s going on in here? Paulie-girl, don’t bother the help!” He’d wink at me and disappear into his office.
He’d check his stock and special order sheets, and then we’d pile back into the van and charge off to the garment district. There my looming father, nearly six feet tall and wide in the shoulders, would haggle with some witless slob over the best gabardine. Daddy would reiterate his secret every time: Look them in the eye and smile, but walk away before you back down. Just be soft with every step. Once he’d get his price, he’d buy remnants of cerise or saffron taffeta to make my sister and me something for school. For Naomi, it would be a blouse with pearl buttons or a crinoline skirt, but for me he’d always fashion something man-tailored: a vest or jacket spit in my father’s image. “Stand still,” he’d say while he’d mark the fabric with chalk and pins that scratched my skin. Back then I never winced.
I’d turn slowly while my father stood, scrutinizing his work, commanding me to stop, or turn, or walk across the room as he’d watch the garment move in the swing of my arms. What emerged would be flawless: pale gray herringbone with pockets piped in apricot, a vivid lining at the pleat. In the mirror, I only saw my father’s eyes, his smile.
Back then, I thought I was special.
On Friday nights, we’d go to the Floridian on Flatbush Avenue for sweet fried smelts with lemony rémoulade sauce. The same diner he used to go to with his own Pops. “Here he comes,” some waitress named Dolores or Ronnie would shout above the din: “The dapper tailor dressed to the nines with his little one.” We’d sashay down the aisle between the tables, he in his striped shirt and red braces, a vest or jacket, shoe-shined and natty. Me in a replica—never a skirt or a bit of lace. Big Paul, square-jawed, with smoke-grey eyes that could darken instantly. would smile at the other diners as if they were his guests, always with the witty comments, tipping his fedora or porkpie, or whatever was perched on his head that evening.
We’d slip into a booth and order drinks: cherry soda for me and Cutty Sark straight up for Big Paul. Before the first sip, we’d clink our glasses while I stared in awe at the myth that was my father. And when our hot plates came out, we’d slather on that tart sauce and slide those sugary fish down our throats, barking like penguins for more. We were hungry. We were the boys out for all we could get.
From Publishers Weekly, "In Small's sprawling, evocative debut, Joss Ellen Ryckman stops running from her past and, after the death of her mother, returns to her childhood farm in upstate New York. The book follows Joss as she navigates owning the Brooklyn bakery her mother started—which she's been managing since she was 20—and then moving into the farmhouse. Small's expansive prose spares no expense on powerful and descriptive details. Much of the book is spent in reminiscence as Joss spins endlessly in the revolving door of memory, comparing her life now with her childhood on the farm. Her memories circle mainly around her father, Big Paul, who called her "Paulie-girl" or "Boy-o" and had a set of expectations Joss is only now realizing she could never live up to. Among a larger cast of characters, past and present, the winding narrative follows Joss coming to terms with her own agency and realizing that the past doesn't necessarily determine the future. Joss also decides to stop hiding from two family tragedies: one of her mother's and one of her own. These haunting moments bookend the narrative and illuminate the raw edges of Joss' experience. This deeply expressive book is a fine exploration of personal history and the significance of place as a means of finding oneself."