I never knew anybody quite like my mother: uneducated but smart, brassy but sweet and hardly what you’d expect in a minister’s wife. “A California wild hair,” she said when I was young, one of the few hints I ever got of her upbringing. If Momma talked about her past you learned to listen quick.
One story I remember turned out to be a lie, and one of plenty. She said right after my birth my name came to her out of thin air: Mercy Grace. I figured she was either overcome by the Holy Spirit or delirious. Neither was true, I found out much later, and neither explained the absence of a birth certificate, which I never bothered to ask about, enthralled as I was by the story of my own birth. My last name, Carsten, was The Reverend Thad Carsten’s, of course, the man I always pictured pacing outside the delivery room, and why wouldn’t I? He was the only father I ever knew.
“I stopped calling you Mercy after a while,” Momma explained, “’cause people twitched when I said it.”
“What do you mean twitched?”
She laughed. “Like it meant something. Like: Mercy how the birth mashed her head!”
The delivery wasn’t an easy one, on her body or my skull. “It took several months to round out,” she admitted. By then she’d resorted to using my middle name. And that’s why I’m called Grace—by default you could say.
I always knew my real birth date at least: July 27, 1958. It was a simpler age in America’s history: the calm before the cultural storm. The decade that followed—the years of my innocence—brought a generation gap, a sexual revolution and Vietnam. I hardly noticed. They were two-dimensional images on the convex eye of our old Motorola TV, or what Dad liked to call The Cyclops, as in, “Better turn off The Cyclops before it rots your brain.” Despite that, life was promising, like a stack of sealed envelopes in the church offering plate. And how could it be any different, with a father and mother in good standing with Jesus? When I was the preacher’s daughter and the path ahead of me abundantly clear?
We came to the Portland parsonage in 1966 when I was eight. At the time, I remember, I didn’t want to move from our small Willamette Valley town since it meant leaving friends and starting the third grade somewhere else. Plus, I knew almost zilch about Portland. Though “big city” in my eyes and the largest metropolitan area in Oregon, it was more accurately mid-sized as cities go, big enough to offer some culture but small enough to escape with a few bucks’ gas in your car—which would have been perfectly fine by me.
The parsonage, at the eastern edge of the city limits, had been home to a series of preachers’ families and would end up as the setting for my own two childhoods: the one before our lives changed and the one after. It was years before I noticed some of the walls in that house were warped and wavy.
“I get the big bedroom!” I hollered after checking upstairs.
My little brother Jimmy was too young to care, barely old enough at a year and a half to climb to the second floor. It wasn’t really the size of the bedroom I liked but a curious midget door through the floral wallpaper. It had a wing-nut latch that Jimmy couldn’t reach and behind it an attic big enough for a busload of friends. I was thrilled, until my father poked his head in.
“Watch your bacon,” he said, adjusting his sturdy, dark-rimmed glasses. He showed me how the flooring inside stopped at three feet with only bare two-by-fours beyond that. “Step off the brink, you’ll end up in the kitchen sink.”
The rhyme was nothing unusual. My father plucked them from his brain like a monkey plucks fleas. “Go the distance with God’s assistance!” was the sort of thing he would say. I tolerated it by rolling my eyes behind his back, or, on that day, performing pirouettes across the beams the minute he left. Preacher’s kid or not, I was no saint traipsing around on stubbed toes. What I imagined, most of the time, was a string of X’s trailing my name, one for each sin I’d committed; there were flocks of them by then, crazy ravens cackling at me. But what did I care if God was watching my back?
The limited attic flooring was wide enough for my personal possessions of the day: a small, key-lock diary, a deliberately-naked Ken and Barbie, and an always-changing stack of books. I remember walking around most of the time with my face in one, figuring it was the one trait I’d inherited from Dad. I didn’t have his stature or coloring, like Jimmy, or his tendency to rhyme and proselytize, but his love of books, absolutely. When I wasn’t playing outside or doing pirouettes over the ceiling, I was reading: at home, in the car, or even during his Sunday sermons, long as I could hide a book behind my church bulletin.
My parents liked Portland from the start, no doubt because we moved there in the summer. Portland summers are unbeatable: cool clear nights and warm days with the snowcapped Mt. Hood shining on the eastern horizon. The rest of the year—from Halloween to the Rose Festival in June—is the rainy season. To pass the time, kids in our neighborhood jumped the mud puddles down our block. It was the 1960s, what else was there to do?
It’s very rare in Portland when the rain turns to snow. The thing to watch out for is freezing rain. It comes like the plagues to Egypt and coats everything: a silver thaw over the landscape, but on the roads, the invisible and deadly black ice. Except when the black ice falls white, which it did one December day. I remember that morning well—and not just for the strange weather. It was the first time in my young life I saw my parents as lovers.
Dad’s whistle came first that day of the storm, a three-note trill that jarred me awake but never seemed to budge Jimmy.
“Rise and shi-ine!”
I groaned. It was still dark outside. Did he have to be so excited so early?
“I don’t think you’ll have school today,” he called up.
I was down the stairs the next minute, my nightgown splayed over the heat vent. I put my face to the dining room window as Dad came up beside me in his winter boots. At six foot four, he was hard to miss.
“It’s deep!” I wiped away the condensation.
Under the streetlight our front yard was like the cover of a Christmas card. Snowdrifts piled high as my shoulders—high as Dad’s in some places—with a sea of white obliterating the street. Where our driveway should have been, a submarine rose, pushing what looked like a periscope into the twilight.
“The Buick!” I yelled.
“It’s completely buried.”
Momma called from the kitchen, “Leftovers tonight. I’m not getting to the store through that.” It was odd to see her up so early and, like Dad, fully dressed since she always had a hard time shaking the night. It wasn’t just sleep, but a strange gloom she wouldn’t talk about. Her hands cupped a mug of coffee, the bribe Dad must have used to get her up.
“Can I go out now and build a snowman?”
“Not on your life,” Dad said, zapping me with his Preacher Eye.
Was I in trouble? I tried to remember. “After I get dressed?”
“You won’t build a snowman today,” he said mysteriously. “I’m afraid there’s something you two are missing. Head on out, you’ll see.”
When I pulled open the front door, cold flakes swirled at my bare feet. I stepped out, expecting to sink into a powdery cushion, but falling hard on my butt instead.
“You all right?” Momma called, trotting over in her rain boots. When she saw I was, she broke out laughing, we all did. The spot I’d hit had shattered. Everything was covered in ice, a thick coat of it: the drifted snow, the shrubs, the trees.
“Looks like it warmed up overnight,” Dad said, “enough for rain.”
“Warmed up?” I shot back through chattering teeth. “It’s freezing!”
My bare feet slipped when I tried to stand, so he hoisted me piggy back and stomped down the porch steps. In the east, the sky shed navy for bright blue.
“They predicted the snow,” he said. “But not the freezing rain on top. What the good Lord has in mind, you never know.”
Momma’s rain boots crunched behind us. “Look at that.” It was the dawn she meant, coming in streaks now over the eastern horizon. In a flash, every mud puddle, broken fence and bad paint job down our street was a crystal paradise. Chandeliers of ice dangled around us, completely captivating, like a Sunday sermon that sucks you in despite your best intentions. I broke off a spear and flung it, and it skidded across the yard to the big tree, spinning out under the wooden swing.
“Know what I heard about that tree?” Dad said.
“It’s a Tree of Heaven, the kind that shoots up so fast you think it’ll take you clear to The Kingdom.”
I imagined climbing the icy branches, rising all the way to the pearly gates.
“Know what else?” The pastor was fired up and pitched me higher on his back. “That tree is old. See how thick the trunk is?”
“It’s like twin trunks stuck together.” I liked stuff in pairs. “Double your pleasure double your fun with Doublemint Gum.”
“Anyway,” Momma said.
“Anyway,” my father continued, “Mrs. Crookshank, across the street, says it’s older than she is. She used to wander here when she was a girl.”
“That must have been eons ago.” I felt the Preacher Eye again even through the back of his head.
“The point is, that Tree of Heaven was here before our house, the church, all the houses down the block. Then some folks came along to build a church and parsonage on this very spot. A coincidence?” He breathed. “Maybe not.”
“Look dad,” I told him, anxious to point out something myself. I had my finger over the church next door, the wrought-iron cross on its roof. Usually stark and gray, it was draped in white and twinkling in the morning sun.
“That’s really somethin’,” Momma said.
We watched it a while in the still cold of the morning until my bare toes started to tingle.
“Can I get down?”
Dad must have expressed something to Momma, because her mouth curled with the slyest smile. I wouldn’t realize until much later what an unlikely pair they were: my father, homely as an ex-boxer and graying besides, and my mother, a young beauty with a school girl’s blush. I could feel him looking at her.
“You know what?” he said to me. “I’ll bet you’re light enough to stand on this ice.” He bent forward to set me down, and he was right. The hard sheet held under my feet. I took a step, listening for cracks, then made a run for it, diving to my belly and sliding headlong over a surface slick as egg whites. It was crazy fun. I didn’t lose speed until I crashed through a crusted snowdrift.
“Ahh!” I screamed. Powder coated my nightgown, my hair and face too. It fell in my mouth as I panted and laughed. But my feet, deep in the snow, were on fire. I bolted for the porch, shattering the ice with each step, and so did Dad, though I didn’t guess why before I saw Momma’s face. The whites of her eyes made full circles around the blue.
She tried to escape, but he scooped her up, her coffee flying, as I high-stepped, using our foot holes, into the house. I didn’t shut the door, though. There was too much to see. My father was running like a linebacker clutching a football. He pounded over the ice as she squealed, “No, no no!” and “Put me down!”
But he didn’t put her down. He stormed the yard, gripping her legs while she squirmed and laughed with her mouth wide. He was headed for the snowdrift I’d torn up. He swung her down and knelt by her side, flinging fistfuls of powder in the air. When she was dusted over, like a snow queen on her winter bed, when she stopped laughing and the rhythm of her breathing slowed, he leaned in, ever closer to her frosted lips, and kissed her.
I giggled, loving every minute of it.
In the next breath, he drew back and she jumped in those old rain boots to straddle his hips and pin him down. It wasn’t much of a struggle; he even helped her some before he rose up to her mouth again. This time, the kiss lasted forever. Momma had her back to me, so I couldn’t see her expression when he pulled away, but I caught his. It was a good thing he hadn’t pointed those eyes at the ice, he would have ruined everything melting it.
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