From the middle of my childhood to the edge of my adolescence, my family socialized occasionally with a small group of Latvians. At the center of the group was a widowed civil engineering colleague of my father’s who introduced us in turn to her dentist friend and the dentist’s husband. When our former dentist retired, we began seeing the Latvian dentist and having our teeth cleaned by her fierce and unforgiving dental hygienist, trained as a dentist in Latvia but never licensed in the United States.
One weekend, the dentist and her husband invited us, along with the engineer, to gather mushrooms in the woods near their weekend home in the country. I remember trailing behind the adults through the damp autumn forest, feeling the same kind of awkwardness keeping company with my dentist outside the sterile confines of her office that I felt when a dinner party at our house included my fifth-grade teacher and her husband, who lived a block and a half away and were part of my parents’ extended social circle.
Unlike the dentist and her husband, who also dug for quahogs at the nearby beach, neither of my parents was a forager, with the exception of an expedition my father once took to a place where he could excavate a five-gallon bucket of dense gray clay for my brothers and me to sculpt. These various hunting and gathering pursuits might have shared the bucket as a common tool—not the small curved knife with a brush at one end, not the rake, and not the shovel or the soil survey map—but instead of a bucket, the mushroom-hunters carried home their finds in a basket.
The summer after the mushroom-hunting, my father took my brothers and me to a baseball game. During the seventh-inning stretch, my brothers went to the concessions or the bathroom, and as my father and I sat alone together on the concrete bench, he asked me whether I remembered A., the daughter of the engineer. She was a few years older than I was and we had listened to records together in her bedroom during a holiday party in her family’s dark, high-ceilinged house. “She ran away from summer camp,” he said, “No one knows where she is. Z. [the engineer] is very worried.” Of course she was worried. So was he. And then so was I, the worry deposited in me like a bit of grit in a quahog shell, one that would turn out never to open. My brothers returned. My father never mentioned the girl again, and the weight of his silence stifled any quandary I might have faced about whether to mention her myself, or to whom. That quandary surfaces now. Should I be writing this? Telling it? Am I violating the trust that seemed implicit in my father’s desperate telling, even with him fifteen years gone from this world?
Would it be quibbling to wonder whether I’m writing about my father’s relationship with the widowed engineer or about my relationship with my father? Or about my father’s relationship with my mother. My relationship with the girl. The troubles that provoked the girl to run away from summer camp. Whatever happened to her next. The way her story haunted me. The way my father’s telling me about her haunted me. Latvia as a stand-in for any embattled or mysterious country of the mind. The shoeboxes I filled with polished, purple bits of broken quahog shell, foraged on walks behind other adults along another beach. The length of time it takes a purple pearl to form around the grit in one quahog shell out of five thousand.
—One of 12 Finalists in MacQ’s
“Triple-Q” Writing Challenge
is a retired educator living in San Francisco on the unceded ancestral homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples. Her poems have appeared in Essential Love, an anthology of poems about parents and children, and in The New Verse News and Limp Wrist. She is a 2021 winner of Cultural Daily’s Jack Grapes Poetry Prize.