A lot happened before I was born.

My childhood was mostly happy, each year dappled with family dinners, Moo-Moo and Pa’s house smelling of cedar and those little peppermint candies, the white bunny cake with jellybean eyes on Easter, Monopoly pieces strewn around mugs of instant coffee—I who never had the patience for the game and was already bad at money demanded the thimble, I still don’t know why–and on Christmas Eve toys of yesteryear from my aunt, whoopee cushions and rubber chickens and the like.

But as I said, a lot happened before I was born, not much of it good.

Like there was the time when my mom was maybe twenty and called that same Aunt a slut—I don’t know why—and my uncle, my mom’s brother, came barreling out of the house and broke my mom’s nose. And there was another time when Pa was yelling at that same uncle in the barn, calling him a stupid son of a bitch and my uncle gouged Pa with a hayfork and didn’t pull away until Pa apologized, something my family has never been won’t to do. And then there is this recent bit my sister told me just weeks ago when we were sharing a beer at mom’s, less than a mile from that very barn, and she told how when she was little, long before I was born, Pa would thin out the barn cat population by hitting them with hammers and shooting the ones he couldn’t catch, so she and her friend Emily would try to hide as many of the cats as possible, digging out little tunnels and holes into straw bales for them to wait it out. “We tried to save as many as we could,” she said, passing the beer, “But I can’t remember now if it worked.”

12 Comments

  1. Janelle Greco

    This is great, Taylor. I really like the scenes of the family here. They place the reader right in the moment and give a glimpse into this family. What I’m still curious about here is what the narrator thinks of or how they react to these incidents. What’s their reaction to the mom’s nose being broken or to the hayfork gouging. There’s something here about salvaging that I really like that comes out during the kitten anecdote and the sister saving as many kittens as she could. I wonder if there are spaces where you could weave this idea of salvation in the other parts of the story. Just something to think about. I really loved this!

  2. Bud Smith

    Haha, what an amazing opening line: “A lot happened before I was born.”

    • Bud Smith

      And then there is this recent bit my sister told me just weeks ago when we were sharing a beer at mom’s, less than a mile from that very barn, and she told how when she was little, long before I was born, Pa would thin out the barn cat population by hitting them with hammers and shooting the ones he couldn’t catch, so she and her friend Emily would try to hide as many of the cats as possible, digging out little tunnels and holes into straw bales for them to wait it out. “We tried to save as many as we could,” she said, passing the beer, “But I can’t remember now if it worked.”

      Oh my god! This is such a heavy piece but a piece balanced with such joy to equalize the pain and I can’t think of a more beautiful or holy thing to do in writing. I am floored by this piece in total but some things that stuck out to me the most and I know I will remember for a long time include–the way the house smelled of cedar and peppermint and the pitchfork incident and of course those escape tunnels that were dug for these barn kitten but we don’t know if it is ever going to work out for those cats and even if it did work out, we can’t remember–we’ll just share a beer and isn’t it almost a miracle we even survived?

      I did think you could do something with these sentences:
      But as I said, a lot happened before I was born, not much of it good.
      Like there was the time when my mom was maybe twenty and called that same Aunt a slut—I don’t know why—and my uncle, my mom’s brother, came barreling out of the house and broke my mom’s nose.

      Maybe they could read like this?

      But as I said, there was the time when my mom was maybe twenty and called that same Aunt a slut—I don’t know why—and my uncle, my mom’s brother, came barreling out of the house and broke my mom’s nose.

      • Bud Smith

        I think this piece is something special though, I hope you’ll give it another pass or two and I believe it has room to grow a couple more hundred potent words. There’s some strange potent alchemy happening here, Taylor. Fine work

  3. Amy Barnes

    There is something so identifiably colloquial in the tone here. That opening line! There is something ekphrastic about this like you have transported us into a family picture. Love the sensory descriptions here: smelling of cedar and those little peppermint candies, white bunny cake with jellybean eyes, Monopoly pieces strewn around mugs of instant coffee, whoopee cushions and rubber chickens, hitting the barn cats with hammers. The juxtaposition of hard and soft, violent and innocent images work well here to give us that family picture of stories told and untold.

    I do think you bring home the point that “not much of it is good” throughout the story — there may be another title option that gives you the added benefit of that word(s). However, there is also something poetic about the phrase repetition so I’m not sure. 🙂 I always read things out loud to see what sounds like it works. It may be interesting to read this out loud too and listen for the repetition.

  4. K Chiucarello

    l o l I LOVE THIS PIECE. All caps loved it. Maybe it’s because I was the thimble too?? The duality here is too much to handle. The line that you land on, that piece of dialogue from the sister that is so casual, is truly a perfect cap –– it grasps at this unattainable attempt at protection within family. The introductory paragraph is so sensory I can picture the home perfectly, smell all the smells, grasp at all the textures. Have you ever read Catherine Lacey’s ‘No One Is Ever Missing’? The narrator unravels in this very even-keeled way and the words come across as if the story is told in one breath. I think that has to do with the ways Lacey totally eradicates her punctuation in places and I’m wondering what would happen if got rid of some periods and just went for a huge chunk of paragraph as the flip paragraph. Even expand it a bit to include even more chaos? I’m a bit weary to even suggest any of that because I think this really is at such a wonderful place. But maybe something to mess around with if you’re in the mood!

  5. Jacob Schrodt

    The understated opening line made me laugh out loud. Love it. This is such a haunting story, and it reflects perfectly the shift that occurs with age, when we discover that the joys and absence of conflict in childhood was only the illusion of our innocence, that we’ve been born into a world of pain and terror and suffering. The image of the sister attempting to hide the cats is so heavy. And yet it’s all juxtaposed with the inexpressible connection we all have with our families, no matter how dysfunctional. Lovely work!

  6. Neil Clark

    “A lot happened before I was born.” That’s how you open a piece of flash! And the (liteally) tiny evocative details afterwards are great.

    The way you contrast that with the devastating things in the rest of the piece is so powerful.

    And now I’m thinking about those poor cats!

    Yeah, I love this piece. Don’t have anything to say about it from a critical standpoint. It made me think of my family and growing up and the shattering of that illusion that everything is picture perfect. Just great writing.

  7. Samantha Mitchell

    Taylor,
    Ahh, I love your writing. You pull the reader in from the get-go and don’t release them until you’re done with them. In just a few, short phrases, we get a really rich sense of the narrator’s life with her family, on the farm, and the kind of tense relationships that hold this life on the farm together. I’m especially interested in the reader’s relationship with Pa, who looms larger than life in this piece and whom the narrator seems to respect despite his violent overtures. I can feel the narrator’s grief looming large in this piece too, and it seems that grief is for Pa, or if not Pa, a way of life that is no longer the same. Maybe both. A lot is left behind when we move from childhood to adulthood, and I think the image you end on… the story of the sister trying to save all those cats and then not remembering if it actually worked. Wow, it works on a lot of levels. It makes me wonder what the narrator’s “cats” are, the things she tried to save throughout her childhood, whether tangible or not, that might or might not have made it out alive. Great work (as always)!

  8. Kevin Sterne

    Damn, I really think you’re getting at something with the end here. The cats and the last line “But I can’t remember now if it worked.” That really hits for me. I want that emotional and thematic register throughout the piece. The beginning didn’t seem to match the tone you’d gotten to by the end.

    The last paragraph is chocked with visceral scenes and images but they are kind of stacked on top of one another, I wonder if they could have more breathing room to resonate as the story builds.

    You definitely have something here and I’m excited for you. Please keep us posted on where this goes!

  9. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Taylor, This is the sort of writing that stays with the reader. Wow. Love the balance, and love that you began with the old memories felt as a child, with the love illustrated. I think you could save some “that aunt” or “that” uncle by giving them names, nothing says you have to name them their real names if this is an autobiography piece. I think this could develop into a longer work, or a series of memory shorts that might later become chapters in a novel. For that, some work on settings, places in memory. This is rich piece, and thank you for it.

  10. David O'Connor

    I love this tiny turn of phrase–I who never had the patience for the game and was already bad at money… Much to love in this piece, flow, pov, the whole thing works smoothly, what would happen if you switched the paragraphs, started with the second one, or added another? I wonder if “a lot happened…” could work as a refrain for a much longer piece with loads of paragraphs? I could happily keep reading, you are creating a world with so few details… well done!!

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