About the Feature

Long ago, my mother lost her French, and with it all memory of her upbringing in Franco-American Lewiston, Maine. This was why we had come to Maine that summer—not so much to capture a frisson of lost language but to recover memories, as if to grasp them like so much detritus sprayed upon the shore.

Something else had happened on this shore that I sought to recover as well. I hadn’t told my mother of my wish to reclaim memories of an event that took place on a family vacation also in Maine, in Kennebunkport. One summer on a stormy day when I was seven, I fell off the Kennebunk River breakwater and surely would have drowned. My then-stepfather plunged into the sea and scooped me out, saving my life. I’d written about my memory of the near drowning many times, and yet the more times I wrote the scene, the further from reality it receded.

So much had been occluded during that time. I’d been old enough to remember the physical abuse. It took place away from my mother’s eyes over the two and a half years of the marriage, from the summer of my seventh birthday until December of the year I was nine. At twenty-five, I’d told my mother about it, but by then Bob McKee was a figure in the rearview. For the survivor, does the trajectory ever end? Could I pry open that memory chamber one more time, find something visceral and real inside?

Perhaps I was spurred along by a novel that I’d packed for the trip, that magnum opus by the patron saint of Franco-American letters, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. A line still comes to mind when I think of my mother’s and my passage: “I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

My mother watched from the passenger seat of our rental car with an intent, lost-and-yet-found expression. She wore a turtleneck, jeans, Chelsea boots, and a blazer, though it was late August. Even if her conscious mind had forgotten Maine, her body seemed to remember the ever-present, bone-chilling cold. Her time in Maine had ended when she was seven—my age when we’d moved in with my stepfather.

Flea markets, reclaimed car lots, and thrift shops advertising recycled dvds broke up long and flat stretches of greenery. We passed a clapboard shack with a marquee on top—T-O FOR O-E PIZZA P-ES. A marquee on a church advertised PROFE-SIONAL CO–SELING. Interspersed were “Maine Is Vacationland” billboards. Others advertising Palace Playland at Old Orchard Beach featured a Ferris wheel and faded, perhaps once-lurid letters going from large to small in swirly shapes. It was hard to ignore the desuetude of the landscape, perhaps an augury about what we might discover, or a warning about pasts still echoing and unknown (to me, to my mother?).

Mileage signs pointed us to Portland, and soon enough we were nearing the Québec border, close enough that the signage shifted to French: BIENVENUE A LA PLABE—TRES BELLE TOUJOURS. A turnoff to Old Orchard Beach led us to dilapidated, shuttered trinket stands across from an old boardwalk. A storm brewed off the coast, and we clambered onto the wooden promenade. Beneath our feet, splintered and decayed floor beams creaked. We were a few weeks past the season, and big wooden doors pointing to interior concessions were padlocked. No one was around. The same faded lettering from the billboards adorned signs for the rides and game kiosks. Stalls were girded by rusty chains, where only days before hawkers must have invited day-trippers for adventures along twisty and centrifugal fun-rides.

I’d never been here, but I had an image from photos that my grandmother had once sent to help my mother trigger her memories. In those, Grandmaman and her sisters frolicked on jetties in sea-worthy flapper outfits—my mother’s aunts Simone, Annette, and Fleurette. Others featured Grandpapa and my grandmother’s cousins Madeleine, Marguerite, Pitu, L’Noir—and then my mother’s generation—Raymonde, Regis, the lost Renée. Frenchness provided a link between the photos and now, but the feel of ancestral continuity ended there.

The air of left-behind nostalgia sent us to the beach for a quick walk, and then we retreated to the rental car. This depressing Maine was not the Maine I’d come seeking. As if reading my thoughts, my mother said, “You know, when we used to come to Maine when you girls were kids, it was such a different Maine from my childhood.” I scrutinized the map, and one of us got the idea to point the car to that other Maine. I knew it was the right path, but perhaps to my mother it had seemed merely intuitive, a road taken without a clear itinerary. “There was nowhere to go but everywhere,” Kerouac had written, after all.

Kennebunkport was a thirty-minute drive to the south. In my memory, a view from a rise had given onto a medieval-style city, like one I’d seen more recently in paintings by the Italian Expressionist Fausto Pirandello—a clutter of overlapping colored roofs in an Italian port town. The reality was more subdued. The shore where I’d nearly drowned was small, a thin spit of beach across a narrow road from depopulated summer mansions. The breakwater lay at the end of the strip. By now any impending storm had slinked back out to sea, and we walked onto the stone outcropping liberated from any threat of weather. My mother and I nodded to each other after a while, as if to say, We are here now. Now means more than anything that may have happened here decades ago.

My mother wandered along the shore to pick through rocks and shells for keepsakes, and a diminished, disappointed feeling descended upon me. When we met up back at the car, my mother looked at me brightly and asked, “Can we get lobster for dinner?”

“That’s a great idea,” I said.

“And shopping at the L.L.Bean outlet?”



Perhaps I thought of the famous Kerouac line: “We lean forward to the next crazy venture.”


My mother had written about our Maine vacations as a family in letters to Grandmaman at the time, which I found among my mother’s photos and memorabilia. Reading these, I’d known that this was a time about which I had my own blank spots—not amnesias exactly, but more like fugues, places where the narrative cut out. One letter from the year I turned seven described a family vacation with my stepfather and his parents in Kennebunkport—perhaps the very same trip when the event took place. Big Bob, my stepfather’s father, “caught a dozen trout!” my mother remarked.

These details fell into place in my mother’s letters alongside the mundanities of our suburban life. We lived in a colonial-era foursquare in Westport, Connecticut, on a property boasting a rambling backyard and a working well from the eighteenth century. That year, my sister, Jill, was lead player in Mrs. Bloomquist’s annual piano recital, rendering Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” flawlessly. I played a Chopin étude. Later that year, I crossed over a miniature bridge in our living room in my Brownie uniform to graduate to Girl Scout. Holding my hand was Jill, already a Girl Scout, dressed in the corresponding green.

The near drowning never made it to the letters. Nor did my increasing withdrawal into myself, into books, into dissociated worlds of my own creation. Jill was the sensitive one, internalizing problems, expressing them in her body. “Poor Jill has black circles under her eyes all the time and headaches,” my mother wrote. “The test results came back that she’s allergic to dust, cigarette smoke, tomatoes, cheese, and milk.”

After a time the letters seem to have dropped off. “We haven’t heard from you in a while,” wrote Grandmaman. “Mish? How are the girls?”


The near drowning, like my road trip with my mother, took place near the end of summer. A storm had been visible above the horizon line. We’d driven in my stepfather’s Buick the four hours north from Connecticut and come to the rise that overlooked the tightly laid-out, bric-a-brac port town. The tarmac was slick from rain. The car was packed with fishing gear, which was not a thing that had existed in the world of my father’s Jewish family or my mother’s French-Canadian one. My stepfather suggested we go out fishing on the breakwater despite the late hour, which my mother objected to because of the ominous weather, but we went anyway.

I remember the feeling of rebellion when I ignored my mother’s warning to stay away from the lowest tier of boulders on the breakwater, closest to the sea, when I cast my fishing line out into the water. Frothy, kinetic waves tumbled above liquid cloudy and thick with suspended algae and spume. And then my body—the girl’s body—followed the arc of the fishing wire up and outward, and she was lanced into the ocean. I think I remember the cold that she experienced like the maw of an animal tearing into flesh, the taste of brine and seaweed, the complete loss of control of her muscles, the ferocious surf.

Seconds later, my stepfather in his Nantucket shorts and boat shoes dove into the water and drew me out.

I’ve written the scene so many times. In each version, I’m drawn to the paradoxical violence and respite of the sea—its offer to the slender child of silence and escape. And I’m drawn to the contradiction of my stepfather as both savior and abuser. The sequence of events always comes out nearly the same. It is impossible for me to see the scene through any other lens. In all its mistiness, with its waves crashing up and creating a film of distortion between the viewer and the tableau-like setting, the water symbolizes the young girl’s raw emotion, her vulnerability, and her frustrated desire for agency. The man, like the power of a coastal swell, is threatening—and yet without him the girl would be so much broken wreckage at the bottom of the sea.

My memory of the event has become stuck in time. Shortly after, my mother banished my stepfather from my family owing to further abuses, the details of which I learned later from Jill. It torments me how the near drowning comes out the same every time. Perhaps this, more than the unfinished quality of the memory, is what causes me to continually work it over in my mind. By now this story has an air of unfathomability, a fixed, flashbulb quality. I know that memory is a process, not a script—a verb, not a noun. With each remembering, the accuracy of a memory is further distorted from the original. Jill is the only witness who’s still around, and she’s forgotten that day. What would I learn, anyway, if I could see it in freeze-frame?


The B&B host was there on the porch when my mother and I pulled up. I saw what my mother meant about this “other” Maine. The hotelier wore argyle knee socks and a kilt, and there were tassels on his shoes. His skin was white with little red marks on his cheeks that reminded me of cotton balls splotched with nail polish. Upon learning of our dinner plans, the host began telling us where to get the best lobster an easy drive away. And did we want a lobster shack or a restaurant, and we said that of course we wanted a shack, and then he was warning us about the French, and above all, he told us, don’t go to Old Orchard Beach. “That’s where all the French are.”

I didn’t feel it as a slap, as I’d felt anti-Semitic comments (one of my mother’s cousins: “Well, you must be good with money, I mean, because of your father . . . ,” her words dropping off). After fourth grade I’d grown up in New York City believing it was glamorous to be French. “Say you’re French, not Jewish,” my mother’s best fashion-model friend, Jewish herself, had instructed Jill and me. I hadn’t known that the French-Canadians of Maine were dubbed the “Chinese of the East” in the 1890s, or that they continued to bear a stigma of poverty, alcoholism, and now meth addiction. Did my mother feel the slap? She gave me a secret glance, and we both fake grinned as if trying not to laugh.

The lobster shack that the hotelier had recommended least had a big open-air seating area over a rock garden floor and a wooden-beam ceiling. There were paper placemats shaped like lobsters and big plastic buckets for our shells. The butter came in paper dishes also shaped like lobsters. “This is great,” I said.

“Fan-tas-tique!” my mother agreed in her fake French, a private language of hers built upon excellents and ooo-la-las and mon dieus.

Perhaps this—this feeling of connection and contentment—was the pearl.


That night in our shared room, my mother and I lay in the dark in twin beds. The rough sheets on my skin and heavy wool blankets on my limbs left me feeling disembodied and safe. The blankets resembled those my sister and I had used growing up, from the Bates and Biddeford woolen mills on the Androscoggin River in my mother’s birthplace of Lewiston. There, at least one of my grandmother’s aunts had labored at millwork at the turn of the century. My mother and I chatted into the night, perhaps anticipating what we’d remember or discover.

Kerouac wrote in On the Road about the first night of the journey:

I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.

I too felt like someone different from myself. What ghosts, I wondered, would I contend with?


Thinking about the near drowning now, the theme of dissonance stands out for me. My falling into the sea was discordant with our idealized suburban life and therefore didn’t make it into my mother’s letters to her mother. My stepfather’s heroic act was out of tune with my remembered, traumatized view of him. It is dissonance that keeps a traumatic memory active, one that is, it is often said, impossible to remember and impossible to forget. Trauma studies, developed in the 1980s and 1990s by Judith Butler, Cathy Caruth, Bessel van der Kolk, and others, describes the traumatic memory as one that disappears during the conscious hours but inserts itself when the subconscious takes over, in dreams and daydreams. The memory is irrational and nonlinear at its start, never processed by the post-limbic brain. Unable to impose reason, the conscious mind ignores the memory. In sleep it returns, in fragments or as chronic nightmares. The brain is stuck in a repetition loop, attempting to impose a narrative onto a fragmented recollection, a rationale for something it can’t make sense of—violence, betrayal, loss.

Paradoxically, but likely because of a related process that is also discussed in the trauma literature, my recollection of the near drowning, replayed so many times, has become hypernarrativized. It has become so narrative as to stink of fiction (though there is no doubt it actually happened).

I still wonder if my mother’s amnesias resulted from traumatic fragmentation, still wonder because I can say now that her memories never came back.

Many of my own amnesias—or “fugues”—are also still unavailable to me, such as this: one time, according to my sister, when she and I were in the fall term of our sixth and fourth grades respectively, our stepfather arrived in his Buick from the commuter lot on the Conrail line and, upon discovering dinner not yet on the table, slapped my mother hard across the face.

I may have been watching. This would have precipitated my stepfather telling me to mind my own business and then pushing me into the stairwell leading to our basement playroom and slamming the door hard, such that I tumbled down the stairs. I don’t remember any of this. The photos from that season, though, back up Jill’s reporting. I have a welt the size of a kumquat above my left eyebrow. I don’t remember the welt either.

My forgetting—of other things, certainly—was fully conscious. I remember precisely my attempts at active forgetting. One time, I sat in my stepfather’s Buick with him and experimented with how fully I could cause a thought to disappear. I remember the setting clearly, the smell of the leather upholstery, a summer sun beating through the window. The car radio plays Helen Reddy singing “Delta Dawn,” about a woman who awaits a fantastical suitor who will carry her off to a palace and life of luxury. I sing along. Nothing about the memory cuts out.

My stepfather asks how I know the lyrics. I don’t answer, because I’m concentrating on the experiment. I distract myself from the offending awareness of his voice, which is layered upon an impending awareness of how he has been coming into my room at night and invading my privacy in every space of the home so that there is no place that is safe apart from my imagination. I conjure a competing thought. Each time the original awarenesses surface, I force them back under. With each repetition, the thoughts fade a little more, and then they vanish. At first they are difficult to retrieve—then it becomes impossible. Having discovered this, I went on to carry out the experiment often.

According to the science of memory, this is an example of what could be called directed forgetting, or intentional forgetting, an understanding of which can be traced back to Freud. Repression, in the Freudian scheme, is the rejection of negative thoughts and memories from awareness. The psychologist Daniel Schacter describes intentional forgetting, in his book Searching for Memory: The Brain, The Mind, and the Past, as a “cognitive strategy that is probably familiar to everyone: when something painful happens to us, we try not to think about it.” Schacter goes on: “Intentional avoidance of unpleasant memories reduces the likelihood that the suppressed experiences spontaneously spring to mind with the kind of vigor that plagues so many survivors of psychological traumas.” He adds that “it may even make some individual episodes extremely difficult to retrieve. But this is a far cry from developing a total amnesia. . . .” The writer Edmund Blair Bolles put it this way in Remembering and Forgetting: An Inquiry into the Nature of Memory: “If we deliberately refuse to remember an episode, we can suffer (or enjoy) a lifetime’s amnesia for the event.”


Our time with Bob McKee ended abruptly after that episode of violence. This may explain why my memories became abstracted and discontinuous from my other recollections of childhood. We moved into an off-season beach rental for six months to finish out the school year, and there Jill, my mother, and I began telling each other the stories that would solidify into a narrative of our shared escape.

I remember one time at the beach with our mother. There were probably those pockmarks in the sand that indicated razor clams breathing beneath. We’d seen these once before, when we’d come out with our pails and trowels and struggled against the tenacious clams in battles of will and strength and then steamed them into a chewy, inedible dinner. This day, the sea was probably that deep charcoal with froth in short lines like hyphens, the winter sky above it opaque gray like a lid. Perhaps I tasted ocean wafting in from the farthest Atlantic. Jill did a reenactment, in a manner that only she could make comical, of our stepfather tossing me down the basement steps. Then Jill gripped me by both wrists and twirled me in a circle. In this way we remade our family and constructed a circle around ourselves, the perimeter forming a barrier against our shared trauma.

There were a lot of ghosts that winter, the beach so deserted, our grandparents somehow remote. I remember a candy store across from a rocky part of the coastline where there were rotted PayDays and soggy, rodent-nicked boxes of Good & Plenty, and a scary man with purple boils on his neck who looked right into us but never spoke when he sold us candy. Sometimes I wondered if the vendor was just a three-dimensional stand-in for a person, if perhaps he was not alive at all.

Soon, my mother placed an ad in the paper to sell our old Volvo. It went quickly. A man came to the driveway; he was younger than my mother, with messy hair and a white jean jacket. He seemed excited about the car, as if it were taking him on an adventure. By commuter train, my sister, my mother, and I then relocated to New York City.

Because I didn’t understand their context, it was only later that I understood the meaning of certain details from the two and a half years we lived with my stepfather. For instance: the old farmhouse had three bedrooms upstairs—a spacious master suite separated by a bath from two bedrooms, one larger and one smaller. When we arrived, my new stepfather explained the room selection to me in a whisper: “You’re getting the bigger room with two beds so you can have friends over, even though Jill’s older. Don’t tell Jill why.” He winked, putting his face close to mine, so I noticed the right side of his mustache lifting and the corresponding eyebrow lowering such that the two nearly met.

I couldn’t have known, of course, that this is how abusers manipulate their quarry—hem them in with shared secrets, isolate the victim from those close to her, inculcate in the victim a queasy and confusing, contradictory sense of superiority and collusion. Another exhibit: my father was made to wait outside when he came to pick us up for visits. Our stepfather would often say, on those days, “Your father’s a humdinger.” He said it weightily the first time, winking at me as if I knew the word. I thought humdinger meant a little pudgy and not an athletic fisherman like my stepfather with his muscular calves, not six foot three but down there in the six foot zeros.

Perhaps Bob McKee intended to wield my father’s Jewishness as a way to separate me from him. My stepfather would try to make me a good Christian, insisting that I know the Lord’s Prayer and attend Sunday school. I hadn’t understood the significance of how, one day, I learned the Lord’s Prayer under duress: was punished for not knowing the prayer and was made to sit in my room until I memorized it while the family left for a day trip—perhaps for an outing on the motorboat. Later I learned that humdinger was a crude term hinting at my father’s emasculation—or, embedded within, at his Jewishness.


Did my mother suffer real amnesias, or were they fugues like mine? Fugues are lapses, a category of memory loss that is relatively normal, moments when memory cuts out. This is unlike the more terrifying possibility of losing a whole time span. The metaphorical language for speaking of amnesias points in many wrong directions: Trigger. Reclaiming memories. Unloosening them. Memory that is called up, like an extra in a play, an alternate for a job. The words don’t suffice. It is now known that memories are not objects but processes. Amnesias don’t occupy space or get filled in like a vessel. The vessel isn’t hidden in the brain; it’s not something to crack open. The language of memory is metaphorical and imprecise.

Bolles describes how the modern framework for thinking about memory results from an unfortunate historical confluence. The lexicon of the mind and the lexicon of computer science overlap. “We snagged ourselves on a bad pun,” writes Bolles. “Discussions of human memory often used words drawn from computer terminology, and theorists liked to take analogies from computer operation, imagining that the metaphors would help understand the architecture of human memory. . . .” The use of the term memory to denote electronic data storage dates to the 1940s, Bolles writes: “That clumsy choice of terms has made it hard ever since for people to distinguish between what a computer’s memory does (store electronic information) and what a human memory does (adapt behavior).”

My mother’s and my trip to reclaim memories proceeded, amnesias suggesting memories that never reappeared and maybe didn’t matter. At a parish in Belfast, Maine, we met a cousin of my mother’s who was a priest. Father Paul Paré first spoke to us in a twangy, coastal Québécois French. My mother responded with a few simple words in French as if willing herself to reclaim that lost language—parfait and magnifique and ooo-la-la. But soon she shifted to English. Perhaps French was simply no longer necessary for my mother to adapt to the world around her.


The memory of my stepfather’s heroic act became difficult for me to process. Was my resentment toward him unfair? Was the lens through which I understood my narrative of our time with him incorrect? Perhaps this explained my charged sadness in Maine that day with my mother when our car reached the rise above the town of Kennebunkport, because of this chaotic interplay of guilt, anger, and indebtedness. Between my mother, my sister, and me, a story had come to life and created its own scaffolding. The abuse was real, but because its context was severed—the place never returned to, my stepfather a figment in our communal family history—I was never able to resee what happened from an adult vantage.

I know that I felt shame about the abuse, which is why I didn’t reveal it to anyone until I was in my twenties. Once, my father told me that I was single because I was “damaged”—though he never knew about my stepfather’s abuse. Shame walked with me everywhere.

One time, I crafted an essay around my recollection of the near drowning and my stepfather’s abuse. I submitted it for inclusion in an anthology by a prominent publisher, and I was overjoyed when I discovered that it had been accepted. I wondered if my lifelong shame might lift as a result of my speaking the truth in public.

I received $1,000 in payment for the essay, and I quickly spent it. During edits, the editor asked if we could change my stepfather’s name, saying the request had come from the legal department. I said yes. I still didn’t know my former stepfather’s whereabouts, having tried to trace him with no success. I didn’t expect the legal team could track him either. It seemed like due diligence to accept the change. As I awaited publication, I listed my appearance in the forthcoming anthology on my resume. Things grew even more promising when an influential writer sought me out at a conference to tell me that she too had contributed an essay to the same forthcoming anthology. She wanted to recommend me for some freelance work.

Finally, an online notice appeared that the anthology had been released. I went to the bookstore near my home eagerly expecting to see my name in print. I found the book, prominently displayed. My essay wasn’t there. My name had been scrubbed from the table of contents. It was as if I’d imagined the whole thing. The celebrated writer—she must have thought I’d fabricated the acceptance.

In time, I spied the editor of the anthology at another writers’ conference and confronted her about the bizarre, painful fate of my essay. She shrugged. She’d been completely unaware, she claimed. Later I met the series editor, at yet another conference—and it was the same: she had no recollection. Shame compounded shame. Perhaps those editors saw a hysterical, bizarre essayist who could not let go of her trauma and the other traumas that had been enacted as a result of the telling of her trauma. I went silent on the topic (on the topic of both traumas) after that. But really, who should have been ashamed—I, the victim, or the perpetrator?

Perhaps, though, it was for the better. My hysterical narrative has unspooled many more times since then. When I read the old essay now, I notice an unquestioned quality about the flashbulb memory. My tale is more complex, less linear, less rational. If perhaps I haven’t yet succeeded in thoroughly unfixing the memory, my earlier self was not yet aware that it had been ossified through the many retellings. Before integration, there must be disintegration.


A name like Bob McKee is hard to trace, and according to my mother, there was never a forwarding address. After we settled in New York City, my mother said he moved to Florida and got married. When, in my twenties, I told my mother about the abuse, she offered to “put a hit on him.” But she was only being dramatic—she had a friend whose ex had a connection to the mob. The friend—the Jewish model—told us that when her divorce had gotten ugly, she’d wandered around Little Italy in New York City whispering, “Dov’è la mafia? Dov’è la mafia?” Whether she took out a hit, I never knew.

What would finding Bob McKee accomplish, anyway, I wondered at the time. Over the years I supposed that I could bring criminal charges, or ask for an apology, or seek closure of some other sort. Protect others from him. Let him babble out a combination of the Lord’s Prayer and a miserable defense of his miserable self. I became a journalist, and good at tracking people down, but in fact it was not possible to find Bob McKee. Years later I became good at social media, and cyberstalking, and even got a dna test that gave me access to a database of ancestral records, shipping manifests, birth certificates, and marriage and divorce documents. I joked with my friends that I could uncover the identity of any potential match on a dating app in just three Google clicks.

I retrieved my mother’s marriage license to Bob McKee and ordered the transcript of the divorce. This told me that my mother had filed it, and that it was entered into the record because “the marriage of the parties has broken down irretrievably.” I was surprised to see it stipulate that Bob McKee would pay our rent at the beach for six months—four hundred dollars per month—and that it named the belongings that my mother would take along on her next adventure—our Yamaha upright piano, four framed Kensington floral prints, a mid-century modern kitchen set.

By now I had Bob McKee’s birthdate, his parents’ names, his middle name, and his place of birth—but still nothing leading me to the actual human. And then in 2022, during the relentless late-night hours of covid scrolling, I found him. If my former stepfather’s imagined litigiousness had led to the damning of my original essay about him, well, he wasn’t litigious anymore (if he ever was). He was dead.

He’d been gone five years. I located a photograph of his grave and printed it and taped it above my desk. Perhaps that would unstick something from my psyche. I found a photograph of him shortly before he died—round and overweight with a goofy grin. He was unrecognizable. And what had he looked like, anyway? Across my years of remembering, I’d been fixated on the way my body had felt, the crawl of his mustache on my face, the queasy sensation that came over me when I slipped into my bed and knew that I was not safe. Once I drew a comic depicting what it looked like to see his face from below—all mustache and shiny forehead. Immediate and unbidden, that sensation of mist on my skin when I would sit on the toilet seat and run the shower but never get in because he’d walk in on me. The sound of the bathroom door banging against a vanity drawer inside the bathroom that I had pulled out to prevent that door from opening on me while I showered. Getting punished for locking doors. Spankings. A belt one time. A familiar overwhelming wash of shame and disgust.

I discovered that Bob McKee had two sons many years after his divorce from my mother. I reached out to the one whom I could locate on social media, saying very little about my life with Bob McKee or the nature of my query.

“Do you have any photos?” the son asked. “Just wondering why now reach out?”

“Every few years I looked him up and found no trace but this time on ancestry.com his obit showed up.”

“Before going any far, sorry to be blunt but why did they get divorced and do you have any thing you could send me?”

“As in proof?”

“Yeah, got to understand kinda a shock.”

“My mother left him. I think there was a fight that got heated and she left. I was nine at the time, didn’t know what was going on.”

It didn’t take long to collect a stack of photos from my mother’s old belongings. And there he was. The figure from my memory aligned in parallax atop those in the photos. I sent the son a photo of the wedding, from 1972. Everyone was so beautiful. I saw Bob McKee through the eyes of my child self when I first met him, before the abuse—or before I came to hate him for it. He was the man who taught me how to find my place in a book without a bookmark, to tell cumulus clouds from cirrus, to build a bureau and paint it, to steer a boat, about starboard versus port and aft. With the son, I aimed to ask only questions. “I’d be curious to hear what he was like.”

“He was my best friend.”

I asked about drinking.

“Don’t know, never touched liquor after I came around. Would have one beer when grilling.”

“We had a stuffed 5’6” tarpon on the wall (do you have it?) . . . lots of memories. How about you?”

“Lol that fish was in the basement on the wall my whole life until he passed.”

I never told the son about the abuse. Who was I protecting? It was as if I had a little brother.

The son, who had been adopted, was deeply alone—having lost his mother to COVID months earlier, and having also lost an adopted brother who had cut ties with the family—why, I didn’t learn. The communication was at times warm, often suspicious, perhaps for good reason. It usually took place late at night on a messaging app. Then it ended abruptly after this question:

“Are you and your family Jewish?”

Yes, I said. “Was your dad an anti-Semite?”

“No, no.”

And that was it.


When I go back to the near drowning now, the roles are different. The girl—me—is “the girl.” The hero—he—is flawed, dumb, cheekily unaware of his power, doing the right thing despite a life of too many drunken mistakes. He is unjustly handsome and appealing. He is so young—we moved out of that house when he was just shy of his thirty-fifth birthday.

I read somewhere about self-compassion, about how achieving it can cause the world to expand. It’s as if a tunnel opens—the tunnel vision of brooding, depression, self-loathing. Maybe I got my shame out of the way after learning about Bob McKee’s life. A vector had pointed out into unknown futures; it had taken him someplace I’d never expected. A moment had gotten freeze-framed in my memory; now a time capsule’s hard shell was cracked open. Had I let go? This guy—he went and died without ever needing to find out about my rage. What might have come about if I’d located the body before it went cold? I wonder whether he’d have asked for my forgiveness. Would I have forgiven?


It wasn’t long after our road trip that my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, at age sixty-seven. I began recording what memories she had left. More came out from her time in Maine than ever before. Her mentally disabled sister, Renée, used to stand behind a baby gate communicating in cries and shouts. With the birth of my mother’s little brother, the family needed more space. They pushed south to Massachusetts and took on their Dairy Queen franchise—what Dairy Queen franchise? They were the only French-speaking family on their new block. My mother’s brother was the golden child—blond and light-eyed in a family of Franco-Americans—and Renée was relocated to an institution where she died shortly after. The fact of the disabled child and her death was pushed into the wallpaper, as was Grandmaman’s alcoholism and the family’s unacknowledged, unspoken grief. No one brought their friends around. The shame was like a blanket you wore around your head. You couldn’t breathe.

Did my mother remember Bob McKee? Did she remember my father?

“What was your father’s name?” she asked.


“Oh yeah,” she said. “I never liked him.”

“Was Bob McKee an anti-Semite?’

The pursed lips, the faraway stare, the non sequitur about a delicious meal.

I remembered the day when my mother and I had sat with her cousin, the French-speaking priest, in Maine, my mother’s French already contracted to that rotation of delightful exclamations. Soon my mother’s English too became contracted. And then my mother had no words, and we spent our time together listening to music, she nodding contentedly to Mozart’s bassoon concerto in B-flat major, her hands and face a symphony of expressiveness. Was this liberation, the savage memories finally tamed?

I think now of the Kerouac line: My whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. Perhaps like Kerouac, we had donned new selves on that journey, had become strangers to ourselves. And then, over time, perhaps we became less strange. I know I was no longer scared.


About the Author

A three-time Fulbright fellow to India and New England Review’s nonfiction editor, Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of four books, including the Juniper Prize–winning memoir The Memory Eaters. Her essays, narrative journalism, short stories, and comics have appeared in the New York Times, American Scholar, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Penn State.