A LIFE IN PIECES by Jacque Gorelick

A LIFE IN PIECES by Jacque Gorelick

It is true that I lost my parents. It is true my mother died when I was a child. It’s also true that her death left me disconnected from her family , from the people who made her, from the stories that might have burrowed in and become part of me—memories that could have painted a clearer picture of where I come from and who I am. It’s true that after my mother died, my father left for Alaska, where he has remained out of reach and out of contact for the past thirty years. It is true that these things are not my fault. Still, I spent more of my life than not filled with shame for being a motherless daughter, for being a fatherless child, for being a stray. 

This is where the story gets complicated. Because this is not the palatable cocktail party answer. This is not the long story short. In this version, nothing is simple.

When I was a stray, there was a woman who said, “I will take you in.” And what could be a nicer, more wondrous thing than taking in a child who is not your own? To save another someone. To make them yours. This woman had the kind of green eyes that, when locked on you, made you confess every secret you ever kept. She was once married to my father, and two years after they said, “I do,”—the same year my mother turned thirty and died in a hospital bed in Alaska—this woman packed her things and left. My father, despite his ability to play Elenor Rigby on acoustic guitar and build a deck under redwoods, was not the kind of man you stay married to for long. Years before she drove away from the dysfunction of us—my brother, my father, our three dogs, our rented A-frame in the northern California mountains, and me—she said I could call her Mom. I didn’t at first because I already had a mother with hazel eyes and olive skin like mine. Then, after four Mother’s Days under the same roof and hundreds of school-day-morning barrettes clipped into my unruly hair (tangles she could not understand in curls that did not come from her)—even before the cancer took my mother away—she became another kind of Mom. And I became Hers.

In the years after my mother died, after this second mother drove away from the sort of chaotic existence any sensible person would drive away from, my dad, ever restless, set off for Alaska with a new woman and her children. Leaving my brother and me with his parents. For two years, we were Theirs, and this is the part I always skip over when I tell anyone about where I come from. But this is about telling the truth, so I will say the words out loud, which is really putting them on paper, which is really the same thing. And also not.



Without a mother or almost-mother, or father, my brother and I found a new sort of family life. In this life, there was a house on a hill with a giant oak tree and flaxen grasses and the kind of winding driveway you find in a Thomas Kinkade painting. In the painting of this life, there was a barn full of racehorses beside a fence on a two-lane country road that disappeared into a horizon of rolling hills and pastures. In the front of the barn was a tack room full of saddles, bridles, and bullwhips my brother and I swung in the air like Indiana Jones. In the tack room was a black and white photo of my grandparents when they were much younger. Even then, my grandfather’s hair was silver, and everyone said the younger version of my grandmother looked like Elizabeth Taylor. Beyond the tack room were rows of stalls that smelled like rain and earth and freshly cut grass. In one of the stalls were two ponies, one coated in powdered sugar and one in cinnamon, and the cinnamon one was mine. 

My brother and I rode the ponies in a parade down Main Street because that is the kind of town it was: peppered with a Rexall Drugs, Circle K, and a 1950s ice cream parlor on the main road running right down the center. The kind of town with more farm animals than residents and a weeklong Frontier Days celebration that included a rodeo, a carnival, and on the culminating Saturday: a parade. In the parade, I wore a straw Stetson with pink silk roses and a wide satin ribbon that trailed down my back. In the parade, I was not The Girl Who Had No Parents but The Granddaughter who lived on a hillside above a pasture of horses and a pond full of mallards that inspired my grandmother to sing, “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends,” whenever we left for town in her white Mercedes. In the parade, I was The Sister of a little boy with soft honey curls and navy blue cowboy boots who rode beside me. This delicate and quiet boy with feet barely reaching the stirrups held tight to the reigns and smiled a missing-toothed grin into the summer sun. This little boy who lost his mother, and his almost-mother, and his father, now needed The Sister more than any little boy should ever have to need a sibling. 

In this life, our hearts were melded together, healed, and further broken in equal measure. 

Despite infrequent visits with our ex-stepmother, who remained motherlike to us, the years in the hilltop house were colored by an insistent yearning for a mother, so I became motherlike too. These years were marked with hair brushing, and bus seat saving, and always asking for everything in twos. These years were also marked by Christmas-morning-ribboned puppies, swimming pool sleepovers, and Saturday wake-up races across terra-cotta hallways to climb into the king bed and wrap small arms around my grandmother’s round, soft body. This life was an attempt by the adults assigned to make up for all we’d lost. How could any of us know there would be more? 

On the first summer we were Theirs, my brother and I rode in the backseat of my grandfather’s truck, with an engine that sounded like a 747, pulling a trailer of quarter horses with names like Sweet Daisy and Sheridan’s Run. My grandfather drove like we were in a race car and not a pick-up as we wound our way out of the mountains to the flat middle of the state where, instead of the roaring engine, we listened to the sound of drumming hooves on tracks and watched striped jockeys bob up and down to cross a finish line in the time it took me to hold my breath as long as I could without cheating. My brother and I, The Grandchildren, stood beside horses after the race and smiled into the sun holding ribbons and flowers. In the photograph of these smiling children, a mother could be standing just out of view, a father could be holding the camera.



The following summer brought with it many camps, and when they were over, the engine of my grandfather’s truck roared as it drove us to the hospital, where we would say goodbye to my grandmother. My skinny body pressed in beside her dying one on scratchy hospital sheets. Her thick, freckled hand cupped mine, overlapping with my brother’s, and squeezed our fingers into a warm pile. “Take care of each other,” she whispered, and my head nodded back tears and promised a promise I would break within months.

Before this in-between life washed away like a sidewalk chalk drawing in the rain, leaving so little evidence left that even now I search Google Earth for the winding driveway and the duckpond and the flaxen hillside, wondering if I dreamed it. Before it faded into memory, more than half a year later, my dad appeared in the living room of the house that no longer contained my grandmother. His dark hair had grown into a ponytail, and though I recognized his brown eyes, a beard hid his face in a way that made him feel like a stranger. He’d come to collect us, to take us to Alaska. 

This is where I had a choice, but that is not how it felt then. At the time, it felt like I’d had enough of change and moving and new versions of the life I was living, and my body refused to consider more. It felt like if I left with him, I’d lose myself for good and spend my days as he had always done—searching for, or running from, something for so long, I’d forget how to ever be still.

And here is the part where I tell you that it was not so straightforward: the setting off for Alaska, the leaving us behind. After my mother died and my stepmother sensibly drove away, my father’s six-foot frame pooled on the linoleum of the bathroom at the top of the stairs in our A-frame and whimpered like a dying thing. My eight-year-old body did not know how to save him, so I took my brother’s hand and led him downstairs, where, behind the door of my bedroom—with walls of knotty pine hammered into place by a more hopeful version of my father—we played Xanadu on my floral turntable and read Nancy Drew and cried about our collection of lost parents. I promised him it would all be okay, that I’d always look out for him. And at the time, I thought it was true. 

Days (weeks?) later, my father pulled himself up off of the floor, picked up the broken frames and glass scattering our living room—evidence of a shattered family—and tried to make it work with all of us together: my brother and me, his new girlfriend and her three kids. For a while, and I’d be guessing to say how long, but let’s say more than half a year (but less than a whole), we stayed with our father and lived this new life with him. This life did not include our dogs, our A-frame, or my record player and Nancy Drew books. Less Thomas Kinkade, more Edvard Munch. This life could fit into duffle bags and the trunk of our Dodge station wagon. In this life, there were seven of us piled on top of each other in a 500-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. Strangers.



After a few months, for reasons untold, my father once again packed my brother and me into the Dodge—now pulling a pop-up camper—and wrapped through mountains past thickening spring foliage and poison oak that wound around manzanita shrubs like caution tape. We stopped at a commune-like clearing at the end of a dirt road where my dad set up the camper between an old man with a long beard and tattered jeans named Frank and a youngish man with a large RV who smoked Marlboro Reds through a hole in his esophagus. Before long, my dad’s girlfriend and kids arrived, so it was all seven of us in a pop-up camper through the hot summer months. We stayed until the fall rain drove my dad to find a better solution—which was to leave my brother and me with our grandparents and for him to set off to Alaska with the other four. 

I have pushed most memories of that time out of my mind, but I do remember during that summer, I found, in the brush near the camper, a cotton-like ball of fur too young to be separated from her mother—a stray with big blue eyes and a high-pitched mew who I named Snowball. My dad told me not to get my hopes up but allowed me to keep the kitten in the trailer with us “As long as she doesn’t wake anyone.” Which is why, when I heard the piercing cry in the middle of the night, I rushed to take her out and crept on quiet feet away from the camper before setting her down. When she darted under an abandoned car, I knelt in the gravel so as not to lose sight of her. When the dog darted behind the tires, it was too dark to see anything, but I heard my dad’s footsteps rustling behind me. His face told me to go back to bed. Instead, I stood frozen as he walked to the woodpile and picked up a solid remnant of a 2×4. “The dog’s teeth had already done the damage,” my dad said. He was only putting her out of misery. 

We buried the kitten under an oak tree at my grandparent’s house. In the years I lived there, I climbed into the lowest branch and cried about the things I had lost, about how sorry I was not to have been able to keep them safe, about the ache of knowing how life is there one minute and then it is not.

It is mostly because of the months in the pop-up camper that, when my dad arrives after my grandmother is gone, I cannot imagine leaving for Alaska with him. Why it didn’t feel like a choice, even though I suppose it was. Why I pleaded on the phone to the woman who—even during the years my dad had been off the grid and under the Northern Lights—I still called Mom. A woman I wanted to belong to more than I had ever wanted anything.

I could not catch my breath when I sobbed, “Please let me stay with you,” into the receiver of the phone on the nightstand that no longer displayed my grandmother’s books and reading glasses. When she said yes, I heaved in disbelief as my dad agreed. That night, my grandfather, worn thin from the loss of his wife and the parenting of young children, handed me boxes to pack my room. In two days we’d meet in a mall parking lot by the neon Orange Julius sign, and that would be the end of wondering what life would come next.

And that is how, with only a few months left of my sixth-grade year, I was no longer The Girl With No Parents, or Theirs, or The Sister. I was Hers.

For two days, I went on a goodbye tour at school, and on a pink raglan t-shirt my friends wrote, “Keep in touch” and “BBFF” in colored Sharpies. At school, I filled a brown paper bag with Trapper Keepers and smelly pens. My brother sat like a statue on the top bunk as I packed Care Bears and cassette tapes into cardboard and tossed clothes into duffle bags. In 48 hours, I tucked a life into boxes, but for one piece I could not pack.

The morning I left, I walked my brother to the foot of the long driveway and waited for the first time in our life for a bus that would take him to school and leave me behind. The yellow school-bus rounded the corner onto our road and grew larger in the distance as my brother’s arms clung to my back. Our weary bodies leaned into each other. “Don’t go,” he pleaded. 

I buried my head into his honey curls and told him I had to, though I’m not sure, even then, if I knew why. I wondered if his age made him more loyal to our father—or just less disappointed. With my arms around a boy whose very existence had been tangled up with mine for so long he felt like a part of me, I didn’t know how life would work without him. Even if he’d wanted to come, she couldn’t take us both, but what kind of person leaves another who needs so much for them to stay? When the tires pulled onto the gravel, I untangled my brother’s arms and watched the only constant someone I’d known appear in a window seat. All I could do was wave as the bus followed the road into the horizon.

In the mall parking lot, my grandfather’s engine idled while he loaded my things into the trunk of the car that would take me to the part of my life where I was Hers. In this life, I changed my last name and we told a story about my first one so as not to confuse others with the messiness of the truth. We said I was named after Jackie Kennedy instead of a dead woman. We said we were real mother and daughter, no step. And we held hands and read magazines and sang along to Carly Simon, and it felt like this was the life I was meant to have.

In this life, we made heavy things light, joked when our hearts ached, and laughed our way through pain. This life was always full of roommates, and coworkers, and friends, and plans, but in this life, I was also lonelier than I had ever been. I did not make friends easily because when you are busy hiding where you come from, when you are choosing every word carefully, it is hard to find your people. 

In the beginning of this life, the only person I had was Her. I know now that having another person depend on you so much is a smothering existence for anyone, and anyone will, after enough time of being smothered, become resentful of the person who requires too much of them. In this life, I became the second worst thing a person can be: needy.



Her friends all said how lucky I was. “Can you imagine what your life would be like without Her?” they marveled. And honestly, I couldn’t. Even though I knew it was true, there was still something not quite right about the shame rolling around inside me. At first, I tried to disguise the shame and the neediness with good things like pastel cardigans and clean kitchen counters, and always doing my homework. I tried to show how grateful I was to be Saved, but I think maybe we both knew that there was not enough gratitude in the world to make me worthy. 

In this life, I knew I shouldn’t want for anything else, but in my body lived the truth about who I was and where I came from. In my body I was still a motherless daughter, a fatherless child, a stray. On a handful of summer visits, before they faded into none, I was again The Sister of a boy with eyes I recognized, but whose dark hair and thin face made him feel like a stranger. This tall, stoic boy had learned to live without anyone motherlike. During those weeks we pretended it was still the same, but each goodbye made it less and less true. In this life, there was a hole so deep and dark in me it could not be filled because of the promise I broke to live it.

A year into high school, when the shame could not be hidden under good things, I tried to suffocate it with Camel lights and Doc Martens and Revlon’s bluest black eyeliner. But the worry of never being worthy always lived beneath the surface, so I gave up trying. And now, on top of being needy, I had become the worst thing a person can be: ungrateful. An ungrateful someone wears the wrong clothes, says the wrong words, feels the wrong feelings. Perhaps she is the wrong daughter? An ungrateful someone does not deserve to be Saved, so this time I ripped clothes from hangers, dumped cassette tapes into cardboard, and heaved into a receiver for a friend to come and pick up the mess that was me. This time I loaded boxes into a car without knowing what life would come next. As it turned out, a person does not need to go to Alaska to forget how to be still. Instead of chalk disappearing in the rain, this life ended with the slam of a door.



I did not fully understand until years later, but in erasing all the lives that had come before the one I thought I wanted most, the one where I was Hers, I erased parts of myself I needed to be a whole someone. To live this life—the life that is Mine—I had to piece all the others back together. I had to tell this story where I have been The Sister and The Granddaughter and The Girl Without Parents and Hers. I had to tell the truth. In my life, I have been needy and ungrateful, and I have left more people behind than I have held onto. But none of those is the worst thing I have done. The worst thing is to trade one life for another and lose them both.

The problem with breaking a life into parts is that no matter how carefully you pick up the severed pieces and drop them into a bottle to be cast out to sea, they will always find you because you are the ocean. The problem with time is that it moves forward, but in moving forward, it also loops back. One day, you’ll be at a coastal lodge with your son, the kind with gardens and barn animals, and he’ll beg to ride the ponies. When you agree, he’ll choose the biggest one with a powdered sugar streak right down its forehead. And when he climbs into the saddle with feet barely reaching the stirrups, the light will catch his honey curls and all you can do is wave as the pony and the small boy follow the trail into the horizon.

Jacque Gorelick’s work appears in Pithead Chapel, LARB, The New York Times, and more. Her memoir, Map of a Heart, about love, loss, and belonging, is forthcoming with Vine Leaves Press. She lives with her family in California. jacquegorelick.com

Read Next: THE KEYS TO IGNITION by G. R. Bilodeau