By Lisa Allen
Learning How You Learn (page 74)
Identify five learning moments in your life when you gained a deep understanding or insight. Write down five attributes of the experience, like where you were, who you were with, and what was happening.
- Watching my grandmother make strawberry shortcake when I was 3, 9, 13, 37. Every age, really, until she got too tired, then too old, to cook. I only cared about the strawberries. She sliced them thick and dumped sugar in the bowl. She lifted the bowl and flipped the berries up and over by moving it forward and back while flicking her wrists—we do it this way because a spoon will bruise them. Bruised berries are never as sweet as they could have been, she said. Then she'd set the bowl of berries in the fridge and make me wait.
I know that if I do that now, if I can just wait until the sugar has done its work, they’ll have released their juices and be softer, happier, sweet as sweet can be.
I think of bruised berries when I think of her, a single mother before we knew what a single mother was, butchering chickens and ironing clothes to feed her five kids.
I thought of bruised berries when I was angry at one of my children. I think of bruised berries now when I want to yell at my father or an employer or a neighbor or myself. Bruised berries, I sometimes mutter. Crushed before they can sweeten.
- In court, testifying to be emancipated from my mother. I was 16. In my memory the courtroom looks like a big box store without merchandise, two card tables set at opposite sides of the room. I remember her lawyer asking me why I don't love her. I remember her winking at me as I left the witness box, the way she smiled. She smiled, didn't she? What were we wearing? What did the big-box room smell like that day? Can't tell you. I must have missed a day of school but I don't remember that either. I know my dad was there but he's nowhere to found in this memory. I remember the lawyer's shoes: brown wingtips. Shiny.
The lesson: memory is forgetful, a liar. It spins stories, fills in its own blanks.
- Dad didn’t believe in tornado warnings, conflated sirens with invitation, unfolded lawn chairs at the edge of our garage door so raindrops beat my bare feet. Together we assigned shapes to the cumulonimbus clouds & laughed at their anvil heads, their crazy hair.
In elementary school we practiced—single file, heads over knees & knees flush with cinder block every Wednesday. Clockwork.
Dad practiced when he was in school, too, his copper haired head over knees & tucked under his desk—but his threat was nuclear, not the Kansas wind. A bogeyman with a button.
When my kids went to school, practicing was called active shooter drill. They were taught to run zig-zag through the halls. Strategy.
Will I ever get the answer to this question: how many things can we practice?
- My teachers—all women—taught me to look for clues. Sky the color of bile means the tornado is coming & silence is not comfort. It’s just the tempest taking form.
I knew that night before the sirens blew. The darkness covered everything but the sound: a rocket launch in my backyard, a whale’s call.
1:21 a.m. I am barefoot, sweater thrown over a too-big nightgown. How is it they haven’t heard the sirens? I pound on their bedroom doors. Let’s go I bark. OK, OK. Give me a minute, they say, their voices quiet and sweet, like I’d just snuggled them to sleep.
All their lives they've seen me stand on my postage-stamp porch, tilt my chin to the storm.
They mosey. One needs his phone; the other doesn’t open their door. Now! Can’t they hear the wailing, the vortex in my voice?
Rain riots the windowpanes. Two of us run down the first flight of stairs, wait. I yell. My son runs up to get his sibling & I stand in the in-between.
Sirens, still. Trunk crack.
It’s like they’re getting ready for a date, I think, slicking their lips. Maybe hoping for a kiss.
It’s all my fault. I prepared them for the wrong disaster.
- Baking apple pie with my stepmother. I was home for the holidays, dating a man they hadn't yet met. As she rolled pie dough she said, If you ever tell your father this, I'll deny it, but don't get married. Find someone you really like and get your own place close to his. Visit each other. Have fun. But leave it at that.
She wove my grandmother's blue rosary into my wedding bouquet, sewed my veil from yards of tulle. Welcomed my husband into her family with genuine warmth and home cooked meals and a place to stay for family vacation when we couldn't afford to go anywhere else.
When he and I divorced, I took the kids to spend a week with her and my dad every summer. And every summer she'd book a massage for me, send me off with the edict to not come home until the street lamps came on.
It's been 14 years and she still hasn't said I told you so.