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Authors: Laura Flynn

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Swallow the Ocean

BOOK: Swallow the Ocean


Sally and Laura in 1972


the Ocean


Laura M. Flynn


Copyright © 2008 by Laura M. Flynn

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is drawn from memories of real events that took place over thirty years ago. Most names, except for those of my immediate family, have been changed. In telling this story I have tried to be truthful, and where possible to verify my recollections against those of others. Nevertheless, memory is not only imperfect, it is a gifted editor, constantly compressing and expanding images of the past into something far more shapely than life as it was lived.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Flynn, Laura M., 1966–

Swallow the ocean : a memoir / Laura M. Flynn.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-1-58243-461-2

ISBN-10: 1-58243-461-1

1. Flynn, Laura M., 1966– 2. Children of parents with mental disabilities —California—San Francisco—Biography. 3. Mentally ill parents—California—San Francisco—Biography. I. Title.

RC464.F69A3 2007




Cover design by Nicole Caputo

Interior design by Gopa & Ted2, Inc.

Printed in the United States of America

COUNTERPOINT • 2117 Fourth Street • Suite D • Berkeley, CA 94710

Distributed by Publishers Group West

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For my sisters, Sara and Amy

For my father, Russell Flynn

And for my mother, Sally Ann Flynn

For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture

of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a

room on a particular anonymous afternoon,

even when we are asleep, even when we are

so old that our thoughts have abandoned

other business? What are all these fragments

for, if not to be knit up finally?

—Marilynne Robinson,


San Francisco—1976

WHEN I WAS NINE my mother explained the world to me.

“There’s a battle,” she said, “between good and evil. And some of us—the strong—have a special role to play.”

I was home alone with her—my father had moved out a year earlier and my two sisters were both at school. I was not really sick—no fever, no throwing up, no stuffed-up nose, just a vague bodily unease that convinced my mother to keep me home from school. We sat together on a clear spot on the floor in the front hall, looking at the faces on the dollar bills and coins in front of us. The mess that had been steadily overtaking every surface in the apartment since my father left stretched before us in all directions. Mail had accumulated near the front door, first on the shelves of the console table, but now it extended in unstable piles along the wall halfway to the living room, which was in turn a confusion of color and texture. Layers of clothing, papers, and toys blanketed the floor. Books pulled off the shelves but not put back circled the bookshelves. Records—some exposed, some in their white slips, some still in the album covers—fanned out in a widening arc at the foot of the stereo. Near the couches, fat metal knitting needles, holding twenty or so uneven lines of scarf, were jammed into balls of yarn—projects my older sister Sara and I had abandoned.

“Everyone who has ever lived is still with us,” my mother said, pushing her glasses higher up on her nose. A piece of Scotch tape held them together at the corner. The faces of these men on the coins and bills in front of us, circulating among us, had an impact on people and events, for better and for worse, she explained. She was in touch with some of them, the good ones.

“Like Abraham Lincoln?” I ventured.

“No,” she said. “He’s good, but not strong enough.”

I was a little put out on Lincoln’s behalf. He seemed like the best of the lot to me. He’d freed the slaves and his little boy had died, which made me feel protective.

“Who’s good and strong?” I asked.

She paused a moment, then said, “George Washington.” She handed me a dollar bill.

He looked a little mean to me, Washington, and his white curls, odd. But I could see what she was getting at—he had that firm set to his lips.

She picked a silver dollar up off the floor and handed it to me. “John Kennedy is the most powerful.”

Certainly, Kennedy was a powerful presence in our lives. You couldn’t wade through the living room without tripping over a book with his face on the cover. Whenever we were close to Golden Gate Park, my mother would drive up and down the boulevard that was named for him. Sometimes she made a special trip just to drive the full length of it, from the panhandle all the way out to Ocean Beach. She found a special gold-plated JFK commemorative half-dollar in the gift shop of the mint when she dragged me there for a tour. The coin was carved out so only Kennedy’s square-jawed profile hung inside a gold ring. She wore it now on a slim gold chain, replacing the heavy gold cross that had lain at the point of her clavicle for as long as I could remember.

“He’s my special partner,” she said.

I didn’t like the sound of “special partner.” Not at all. There was something wrong about it.

“He helps me,” she continued. I didn’t want to hear any more. And yet.

“Helps you what?” I asked.

“He helps me fight the devils,” she said.

I blinked, but kept going. “How?”

She rubbed a half-dollar between her fingers, searching for words, to describe what she knew I couldn’t see.

“I stretch them out in my mind,” she said. She held her fingers together, then drew them slowly apart, the way you might stretch taffy or bubble gum. “I stretch them until they’re destroyed.”

I watched her fingers slowly come apart and could see how the devils would be—solid at first like pieces of unchewed bubble gum, becoming elastic as they stretched, then turning to long filaments that finally broke and disintegrated as you pulled them apart.

I had a special place in my head for the things my mother told me. I knew a thing could be real and not real at the same time. I was a big reader—I took in what she told me like a book or a story, undiluted, caught up in the moment of the telling. I wanted details. I wanted to understand how it all worked. Whether what she told me was real or not almost didn’t matter. This was all treacherously real to her, and she took any sign of skepticism as betrayal. I lived in her world, and even if none of this was real to other people, the consequences were real for me.

She talked on and on. The weather, earthquakes, Vietnam, Patty Hearst, Squeaky Fromme, the signs of the times. Everything counted; everything was in play. A monumental shift was under way, right now as she spoke, and she was at the heart of it.

“There is no one else,” she said. “I have a role no one can fill.” Her pale blue eyes fixed on me from behind the thick glasses, waiting for a reply.

I nodded my assent. Her eyes slipped away. I felt relief. She gazed down the hall, past me, towards the front windows in the living room, her own head nodding up and down intently.

Sitting there on the floor next to her, asking questions, my body, eyes, and voice must have reflected the same simple faith in her that I’d always felt, but a part of me was already backing away, edging towards the front door, slowly, the way you move away from a dangerous animal so it won’t startle.

Chapter One—1972

PICK A NUMBER between one and ten,” my mother said, squeezing her wide-set blue eyes shut. She wasn’t wearing glasses. She rarely did back then—vanity, I suppose. I stopped on the path, closed my eyes, and waited for the number to whisper itself in my ear.

“One,” said Amy.

“Seven,” I blurted out.

“That’s right!” my mother said, her eyes opening in surprise. “You’re getting good at this.”

We played this game to sort things out—who went first, who sat up front, who got the extra cookie—but also to hone our psychic abilities. Practice, my mother said, practice was the key.

When I was five and my sister Amy was still a toddler, we lived just half a block from Golden Gate Park. On sunny afternoons when I got home from kindergarten, while my father was at work and my sister Sara still at school, my mother rolled out the Wonder Chair—our big lug of a stroller with dangerous joints and a heavy vinyl seat—and shepherded us across Fulton Street, into the Rose Garden, and through the park for the elaborate series of visits and stops that had become our ritual.

Somehow in my memory it is always late spring, after the cherry blossoms but before the summer tourists. I don’t remember the rainy days, and these sunny afternoons have united to form a single walk through the park.

In the Rose Garden my mother released Amy from the stroller, and the three of us bounced from flower to flower, closing in on the strongest-scented roses. Couples sprawled on the grass between the rows of plants, girls in gauzy skirts entwined in the arms of long-haired boys. On the benches, old women in straight tweedy skirts pressed their heels and lips together in disapproval. My mother fell somewhere in between this cultural divide.

She saw herself as something of a bohemian. My parents, both Midwesterners, had come to San Francisco together to lay down fresh tracks, to leave behind the narrowness and provincialism of their childhoods. My mother in particular believed that here, in this most European of American cities, she could make all the choices about our lives, from where we went to school to what we ate, read, and believed.

At just past thirty, my mother was tall and slim, taller seeming than her five feet seven, perhaps because she usually wore heels, even for a walk in the park. Her eyes—large, brilliant blue, inherited from her mother and passed on to me and my sisters—were her defining feature, all the more striking for being set against her pale skin and dark hair. She had a slight overbite, visible when she smiled, and low pronounced cheekbones. She was beautiful, but from the evidence of the photos that survive, I’d have to say her beauty was somewhat unreli-able: one day she was striking, the next, just strikingly pale.

The ladies on the benches always smiled when they saw us coming, my mother in her skirt and low-heeled pumps, leading two neatly dressed little girls, the Wonder Chair anchoring us firmly to the middle class. Amy might have been wearing one of the bright red or blue wool coats, with a matching bonnet that my mother favored when we were very small. I was bigger and the 1970s had dawned, so for me, at least, this look had given way to wide-legged plaid pants, cotton turtlenecks, and cardigans misbuttoned at the chest.

My mother never acknowledged the smiles of the ladies on the bench. Nor did she approve of the young people in the grass. For all her desire to throw off convention, she retained some of her Midwestern preacher’s daughter sensibilities. She was always a little scandalized by the flesh and free love so brazenly on display in the San Francisco of my childhood.

We drifted through the roses in our own world, staying upwind of the young people on the grass and out of earshot of the ladies on the bench. My mother had an uncanny ability to create a private universe. We lived at the heart of a cultural maelstrom—I was born in 1966, the summer before the summer of love, just a block from Golden Gate Park. By 1972 the flower children had camped and decamped, the Vietnam War was still raging. And yet the San Francisco of my memory is almost unpeopled.

Our business in the Rose Garden was not to scandalize or be scandalized. We came for the flowers.

“This one is a
,” my mother said. I made her read all the names on the little black plaques.
Tranquility, Artistry,
Sea of Peace, Elegantyne, Golden Fleece, French Lace, Lavender
Lassie, Soleil
. We practiced the French pronunciation. She brought her teeth together and rolled out the throaty
for me to copy. The skin on her neck trembled.

She spoke French, and that, along with the tales she told of sailing to Europe on the
Queen Mary
when she was young, of living in Paris, and of meeting my father on the steps of her hotel, suffused her with romance.

I liked to imagine her on the deck of the ship the day she sailed, unfurling streamers to the crowd below, dressed for the occasion, looking like a movie star, the way she looked in her college graduation picture, hair cut short, blue eyes glittering, in a tight-waisted, full-skirted dress, with a short string of pearls at her throat.

“I cried and cried that day,” she would always say when she told me this story. The way she said it, I knew it was not just a little sniffling. She said she cried from the time she prepared to board the ship until the aunt and uncle who saw her off that day made their way down the gangplank.

This didn’t fit. Her crying ruined the picture. This was an adventure story, a romance. She set off to see the world. She met and fell in love with my father in Paris and then had us. Her story had a happy ending—the crying at the start was all wrong.

“Why did you cry?” I asked her.

She paused, as if trying to locate this lost moment in time. “I wasn’t ever going to come back,” she said, offering up this second, enigmatic, bit of information without explanation. I don’t think I ever questioned her about it, but it troubled me. Here was the downside of her larger-than-lifeness, the hardheaded, no return, we-don’t-do-things-like-other-people part of her. To me, her not wanting to come home seemed disloyal to my kindly grandparents, to my father, but most of all to my sisters and myself, whose existence depended on her willingness to come back and take up her life as wife and mother. In the self-preserving sophism of childhood, that was the only fate she was allowed.

The path turned sharply downhill just before we reached the Tea Garden. My mother relaxed her hold on the stroller, and we were all pulled into a run. We went headlong down the hill, tumbling forward at a speed on the outer edge of my mother’s control. I hung on to the metal bar of the stroller. We arrived breathless and laughing at the wooden gate of the Tea Garden. There the path flattened out. The Wonder Chair rolled to a stop. We left it by the gate and entered the garden.

Amy and I raced along the stone paths in a carefully manicured world of dwarf trees, fishponds, wooden bridges, and torii gates. We stretched our legs to land squarely on the large stones. My right hand traveled the smooth surface of the low bamboo rail as I ran. We made our way quickly to the base of the moon bridge near the front entrance of the garden. I slowed down when I reached the spot where the path crossed the channeled water. Amy was so close she bumped up against me before coming to a stop.

I looked back and, not seeing my mother, I squatted by the pond and bent my head low. I nestled my chin in the cup formed by my up-tilted knees and surveyed the multilayered murkiness of the pond. Silver and copper coins shone up from the bottom. The rims and edges, half exposed under a light cover of silt, caught the sun. Above the coins a bright orange carp traversed the shallow waterway. At a distance, at a glance, the carp were beautiful, but kneeling here, up close, I thought they seemed too big, overgrown, their faces grotesque.

I studied the shadowy limbs of the water striders. They walked on water, “like Jesus,” my mother said. Mostly they floated, moved only by the slight current of a breeze. Out of nowhere one of them would shoot across the pond, setting the others off in a skittery flash of movement. Then they were still again on the smooth surface of the water. The thing about water striders is, if you mess with them, if they get wet, even a single drop, they go under. They are held up by the surface tension. They don’t know how to swim.

My mother took up her spot on the path directly across from the high wooden bridge and trained her whole attention on us. Once she was in place, Amy and I raced to the top, climbing the steep side of the wooden arch as if it were a ladder. We scrambled past grownups, the season’s first tourists, slow-moving obstacles, people not fortunate enough to live in San Francisco, people who did not have sweaters tied around their waists and who would soon be chilled by the afternoon wind, people who struggled in their shorts up the vertical slope of the bridge. We were agile because the incline was better suited to a child’s body and because this was our place. We were native San Franciscans, and this, my mother let us know, made us a little bit better than other people.

On top of the bridge I felt like a giant straddling the earth. The wood curved down and away under my feet in both directions. I clutched a penny in my hand and waited for my mother to look up. She stood on the path below. Her gaze fell loosely about her, fixed for a moment on something in the low hedge beside her, then moved out across the pond. Looking up, she smiled and called, “Make a wish.” I squeezed my eyes shut and turned to toss the penny over my shoulder. I heard it plunk into the shallow pond. I turned around, looking first to my mother. She drew her hands up close to her face, clapping to signal her approval. Then my eyes searched for the penny. I saw only the sediment slowly rising, spreading, then just as slowly settling back down onto the bottom of the pond.

I edged my way down the side of the bridge, and my mother came to meet me. Holding out a hand, she braced me so I could jump from the second-to-last step. Amy came down backwards, her toddler body hugging the bridge, each foot in a blind search for the step below. My mother hovered behind her with both arms raised, resisting the urge to help, but prepared to break the fall.

We went down to the pond to see the ducks we had been following since early spring. My mother drew a plastic bag filled with bread crusts from inside her purse. The mother duck appeared with five babies trailing behind her. Her heather-gray feathers circled back in a pattern of light and dark, coming together in the final thrust of her tail. She stayed close to the shore, gliding through the reeds so that the ducklings moved in and out of sight. They picked the bread we tossed them off the surface of the water. I imagined myself coming back a mother duck in another life, coursing through the water, propelled by feet unseen.

Our last stop before tea was the bronze Buddha, set in his alcove at the top of a steep set of stairs. “He’s holy, just like Jesus,” my mother said.

I didn’t think he was like Jesus at all. He was sturdy and smiling and he sat up very straight. Jesus, most times I had seen him, was skinny, stretched, hanging on the cross, skin pulled against his ribs, head drooping onto his chest, eyes full of suffering. Buddha was not like that. He was calmness cast in bronze. You didn’t have to feel sorry for Buddha.

My mother read from the placard, “He is known as the Buddha who sits through sunny and rainy weather without shade.” Amy and I each picked a flower from the azalea bush at his side. My mother lifted us, in turn, to reach up and place a single pink blossom on his upturned palm.

We had the teahouse nearly to ourselves. The wooden sandals of the Japanese women in kimonos who served the tea clattered on the concrete floor. They took tiny steps, toes gripping the wood of their sandals through white socks that puckered around the thong. I cracked open the two wings of my fortune cookie. It split like a wishbone into uneven halves. I slid the white strip of paper through the opening in the shell, careful not to tear it. Lips moving, I read my fortune slowly to myself. I could already read—I don’t remember learning, just that at some point before I went to kindergarten the letters above my mother’s fingertips had drawn themselves together and formed words for me.

The fortune can only have been good. Or if it wasn’t, I passed the paper to my mother and waited while she held it close to her eyes to read. With her head cocked to the side, she’d think a moment and then reinterpret the fortune in my favor.

We ate the salty rice crackers, smooth as the lacquered table before us, and played past lives. My mother was quite taken with reincarnation; she let us try on former selves like Halloween costumes. Sometimes you were a squirrel; sometimes you were a boy. Amy, we all agreed, had recently been a tiger because she had a nasty bite. In another life, my mother said, I might be the mother and she the child. Each of us had a soul, precious and indestructible, the part of ourselves that would carry on and over into the next life. This she was sure of; this we could count on. I imagined mine as a small white cloud, something like Casper the friendly ghost, able, should need arise, to float out of my body and on down the street.

My mother reached over and ran a hand through my shoulder- length hair, tucking some stray ends behind my left ear. Amy wiggled in her seat. I held out my hand to my mother.

“Read my palm,” I said, hoping for something more substantial about my future. She took my hand and held it up in the sunlight. My palm and fingers were covered with a maze of lines, like an old woman’s. “You’ve lived many lives,” my mother said, not for the first time. She traced the deep line that circled my thumb. “This is your life line. You’re going to have a long life.” Then she moved her fingernail lightly across the straight line that crossed my palm. “This is your love line,” she said. “It’s a deep one.”

Then we begged for stories from her childhood, or, best of all, “the story of when you and Daddy met.” She always obliged.

It was 1960. She was living in Paris at a small Left Bank hotel. She and Mary, her friend from college who’d traveled with her on the
Queen Mary
, were coming down the stairs of the hotel, headed out to a jazz club or a bar and dressed for it—no doubt navigating the steep staircase as women in heels do, each foot wavering for a moment in the air before locating the next step. As they came to the landing on the second floor, a door stood open, blocking their passage. They stopped. My mother peered around the doorjamb into the room. Her eyes locked with my father’s for the first time. He smiled and told her she could only pass if she agreed to have dinner. She smiled back and stepped gamely over the threshold.

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