Memoir: Sacred

By Shelagh Connor Shapiro

Featured Art: Birds by Jonathan Salzman and Tibetan Monks visiting Passion Works Studio

Ohio 

We sit in the car, my mother and I, outside a large white barn with black trim. It’s a pretty barn—less than a mile from our home—and my sister Maura keeps her horse here. The horse is Culotte. His previous owner called him “Just Cool It,” but Dad said that was too much of a hippy name. He is a proud Republican. During the last election, I picked up one of the dropped campaign buttons outside the voting booths. You aren’t allowed to wear the buttons inside. The vote is private, sacrosanct. 

We have stopped, as we do each morning, for Maura to feed Culotte. In March 1972, I am nine. In five minutes or ten minutes, when Maura comes back to the car, Mom will drive me to the William E. Miller Elementary School. She will drive Maura to the parking lot of the A&P, where Mrs. Besaunceny and three other students meet every day to drive to Columbus School for Girls, an hour away. CSG has no room for me in the fourth grade class. I’ll join the fifth graders next year. 

Our breath is frosty in the car. I ask my mother to repeat her question.

“If your Dad and I ever got a divorce, who would you want to live with?”

Vermont

When my husband Jerry and I moved to our home in 1991, we used to find horseshoes in the earth. We’d begun the enormous project of working our ten acres into something attractive—something that might yield greenery, flowers, vegetables—maybe an exciting place for children to run around. Our soil was clay, and it took hard work to turn it over with a shovel, bending low and digging in with legs and arms, trying not to strain necks and backs. Digging out solid clay wedges was sometimes made easier by the stones that would break up the clay, or the occasional artifact. If it had been up to me, we’d have hung the horseshoes all over the place, so many U’s designed for holding luck rather than letting it run out. But Jerry always threw them back. He’d say, Let the land keep its luck. And I liked to imagine they’d stay there forever—a permanent fixture, sleeping within the soil.

Ohio 

My own childhood does not take place on clay soil, but silty loam—moist and well drained. We live in the small town of Newark, near the rock deposit known as Flint Ridge, an eight-mile-long vein of high-quality flint that allowed ancient native cultures to produce tools, weapons, and ceremonial objects. My father purchased land out that way when I was five, and he talks about building there: a house, maybe a barn. From our home in town, we ride to Flint Ridge on his motorcycle, me in back, holding him around his waist. We walk the land, dreaming of houses. I look at leaves and draw pictures in the dirt with sharp sticks. I find things in the dirt. Dad has taught Maura how to use a bow and arrow on that land, shooting at targets fastened to bales of hay. She is pretty good at it. I am too small for shooting, but Dad helps me spot the primitive arrow heads the ground regularly spits out—centuries-old remains of the Native Americans’ own bow-and-arrow hunts which, long ago, helped them survive.

Vermont

Jerry did most of the digging in our yard. He was the gardener, the landscaper, the one with a vision. Thanks to him, we had a Japanese-style courtyard out front and a series of three-foot-high landscaped mounds out back. Thanks to him, our pond was surrounded by various feathery perennials and fruit trees and willows. He planted nearly a hundred varieties of day lilies, which offered bursts of color, little explosions amidst the green all summer long.

The Hopewell Tradition

Having grown up in central Ohio, I am already familiar with mounds. Native Americans known as the Hopewell tradition—which encompassed many cultures sharing the same trade routes—built mounds for ceremonial purposes. Imagine a shaman preparing the dead for cremation or burial, then organizing the construction of a mound to cover the remains. Mounds enclosing ceremonial spaces were constructed over generations by people carrying various types and colors of earth in baskets, then walking over the earth again and again until, as it tamped down solid, the land’s new profile emerged.

The mounds in my home town—the Newark Earthworks—also served as a lunar observatory. A national landmark, they were chosen in 2006 by the Ohio History Connection as, “the official prehistoric monument of the state.” (Though are they truly prehistoric—which implies a time before written records—if the mounds themselves constituted some form of symbolic communication?)

According to that organization’s website, “At present the Octagon Earthworks is also the site of the Mound Builders Country Club golf course. Use care in viewing them.”

Vermont

At first, I fought Jerry about the mounds, which started out as enormous piles of naked dirt dumped by the truckload in our backyard. 

Mounds? What for?

Drainage, he said. Drainage, to allow a larger selection of trees and bushes to grow. Trees and bushes which, until that point, had never survived our soil, which choked their roots in clay until they rotted. 

Ohio 

Ohio is not our first home. It is my seventh. It is Maura’s fourteenth. Dad is a businessman—an executive with Roper Corporation, which makes appliances for Sears Roebuck. He’s been transferred a lot. Promotions, usually, because he’s smart and capable and hardworking. But he is also dangerously charismatic, edgy, and quick to anger. He likes being the one to tell a joke, not the one about whom a joke is told. As an adult, I will wonder if the promotions and transfers might have been a way each office had of moving him somewhere else. When I’m older, Mom will say to me, “I spent my entire marriage sewing curtains.” 

Even once we’ve found our pretty, sage-green ranch house in Newark, Maura and I continue dipping in and out of public, Catholic, and private schools. We settle in one—sometimes together, sometimes not—and then Dad will have a falling out with a teacher, a parent, a principal. We’ll be put in another school between lunch and recess. I attend first grade at the Miller Elementary School, second and half of third in the Blessed Sacrament School. (There, late one night, Dad will sneak me in so that I can watch as he draws a mustache on the poster of Walter Mondale that hangs on the door of my second grade classroom. He will eventually argue with a nun over the meaning of the word “Amen,” and Maura and I will be removed from the school.) I will then spend the rest of third and half of fourth back at Miller. Finally, in 1973, I’ll find myself in Mrs. Hoffhine’s fifth grade class at the Columbus School for Girls, where I will stay until graduation. Not because my father finds it to be the perfect place, but because my parents will be divorced by then, and he will have moved to Illinois.

The Hopewell Tradition

In all likelihood, the Hopewell mounds ended up being saved by the golf course. Many other mounds in that area were plowed up and turned over to make way for shopping malls and industrial parks. Maybe, in that light, it should seem less objectionable that men and women have been driving balls off “the official prehistoric monument of the state” for over a century. Would the original native peoples have embraced this arrangement, though: a trade of sanctity for permanence?

Ohio

The club pool borders the golf course on the southeast side. You can see the 10thtee from the high diving board, on the other side of a gentle, sloping mound. The high board is bouncier than the low board, and scary. I do back dives off the high board, but the first one in any given summer is terrifying. The life guard, Desi, climbs the ladder, walks out to the end behind me and spots me as I inch around to face him. Then he holds me around the waist and leans me back, back, back off the board while I cling to his forearms in terror. I can’t really hang on once he lets go, so I swing my arms fast over my head, and they lead me into the unnaturally blue water. After the first back dive of the summer, I’m not scared anymore, though I usually still take a moment, rising and falling with the diving board’s lazy undulations and staring out over the golf course, bracing myself.

We are not allowed on the mounds at the country club without adult supervision. Once, Dad takes me in his cart when he goes golfing with Mr. Rhodes (“Bumpy,” because he’s a big guy, and it sounds funny with Rhodes). Otherwise, I only ever walk around or sit on the Hopewell mounds on the fourth of July, when members may gather with their families on the golf course to watch fireworks. I like to sit halfway up a mound, leaning on my elbows, which will become marked by scratchy grass. I gaze up and watch the colorful explosions. They dwindle afterward into thready sparks, then fall to the turf and disappear in the distance. 

The Hopewell Tradition

The complex designs of mounds like Ohio’s great serpent are remarkable, but what remains of the Newark Earthworks is less representative: a circle and a square. Seen from above, they could be a key, a spoon, a rattle, a shovel. Maybe a lollipop. The great Ohio Lollipop. It’s hard to say, since so much was destroyed, and only part of it remains. 

Ohio

My mother’s question about divorce hangs in the air between us, almost as palpable as our frosty breath, which seems to dissipate in slow motion. We sit in the Cadillac, in the pebbled parking lot of the horse barn. The car is running, but it is still cold inside. We left late. We always leave late. 

“What do you mean? Are you and Dad getting divorced?”

“I’m just asking.”

“I’d want to live with you.”

Later that day, or maybe it’s the next day, my father asks my sister the same question. He knows that she will say, “I’d want to live with you.” Just as she would have to Mom, if Mom had asked her. And just as I would have to him, if he had asked me. But Dad set up the circumstances. He decides who lives where, of course. He wants an older girl in his house. She can cook some, and she can clean a little, and she is easier than I am—responsible and obedient. He has set it up to look like we’ve made up our own minds. Nevertheless, from then on, he will hold my nine-year-old answer against me like a betrayal.

They tell us together. Dad, in his brown chair, and Mom in her gray one—with Maura on the matching ottoman. I sit on the floor, on the wall-to-wall shag rug, a blend of cream and light yellow. He does the talking. 

“Your mother and I have decided to get a divorce.” Those will have been the words. I don’t remember the words. I remember Mom crying and Maura crying. I remember the look he gives me when he says Maura wants to live with him. 

“I understand you want to live with your mother.” I pretend to cry, but I am not sad. I feel relief and something like elation. He and his anger are going away and I’m about to have Mom all to myself. I forget to think about Maura. My initial reaction will shame me forever. 

A motorcycle ride, before they leave. Just the two of us, a ride in the woods, maybe out near Flint Ridge. Dirt roads. Post and rail fencing. I’m holding him around his waist, and my feet are on the rear pedals, and it’s safe on the bike with Dad. We stop for a talk. I won’t remember the talk. Just the hug, which is a tight squeeze—extra long, because he is crying and does not want me to see.

The Hopewell Tradition

I picture the ceremonies that might have been held around the same year that Jesus—also wildly popular in most of Ohio—walked the earth. Ceremonies to the moon, which rises to its orbit’s northernmost point every 18.6 years. The moon then appears within one-half of a degree of the Newark octagon mound’s precise center. This, according to a New York Times article from 2005, “makes the Newark Earthworks twice as precise as the lunar observatory at Stonehenge.”

Vermont

When our boys, Bennett and Connor and Aaron, were young, we would occasionally spend a summer evening lying outside—all of us on a blanket—looking up at the moon and watching for meteors—shooting stars blazing a trail across eternity. Our local weathermen offer a monthly “Eye on the Night Sky” in summertime, a radio broadcast about stars and planets and moons. Once, Aaron called in and got his question answered on the air. I loved that he ran inside the house to do this without consulting us, knowing he didn’t need permission. 

Ohio

As they navigate their unhappiness, my parents take walks at night. Once, knowing they are out, I become afraid. My sister is away at Red Pine Camp, and I am alone in the house. I’d seen a picture in a book at school about archeological digs—the mummified remains of an ancient dead woman. I get out of bed and run, still in my nightgown. I run, feet bare, down our pebbled driveway, through the shadows of our quiet paved street, still warm from the day’s sun, until I find them, and make them come back home. He is not angry. When he is not angry, the relief is pure joy.

Later, after he and Maura have moved to Illinois, Mom and I will walk at night. We talk about people we know and plans we’re making, and sometimes we just stay quiet. We look up at the moon in amazement at its beauty and reliability—the steadfast permanence of it—and remind each other that men actually flew there in a ship and landed and walked around, and isn’t that something?

Vermont

I walk down to the pond and sit on a red bench made by religious people in Lamoille County. The dogs sit beside me. Sometimes the cat follows us. He shifts in and out of view, hiding behind day lilies and milkweed, or stalking prey in the tall grass. We stare out across the water at cattails and sunning turtles, birds, and nothing at all. Jerry is somewhere, gardening. 

We had a small argument this morning about a piece of paper, mislaid. “Did you see it?” “I didn’t move it!” “I didn’t say…” A silly thing. And yet, the tension built, for me, like a wave growing. I knew it would resolve quickly. They always do. A discussion, a tease. “Oh, shut up.” Laughter. Relief, like water pooling, after a storm.

The dogs and I are homebodies. Not so much, the cat, who is fierce: a hunter and explorer. To the east, grassy three-foot mounds are thickly planted with trees and shrubs and flowers. Reclining giants, silent and content.

Ohio

I have no detailed recollection of the day my father and sister move away to Illinois. I must have been there because it was summer time, and so I was between William E. Miller Elementary fourth and Columbus School for Girls fifth. But that day is mostly blank to me. Do they fly? Do they drive? I have no idea. And I won’t remember saying goodbye to them. Of course, it isn’t really goodbye. There will be visits. There will be entire summers where Maura comes to stay with Mom and me. But how strange to have no memory of suitcases by the door, boxes in the hallway. No memory of Mom packing lunches for their ride. Or maybe their flight. No hugs, no tears, no sitting beside Maura on a couch while Mom and Dad fight one more time behind an impotent closed door about some lost object or perceived slight. His voice, sharp. Hers, drowning. 

This, instead, is what I remember about the day my father and sister leave. Being at the club, having been brought by a neighbor or a friend. Climbing up on my own. Wet, bony fingers holding tight to thin metal railings on either side, pruned feet mounting textured ladder rungs. Walking to the end of the high board then turning while gravity sways me lazily up and down, up and down, and a line of waiting divers grows behind me. I look across the chain link fence to where golfers walk up and over the mound. They roll bags of clubs behind themselves; they pull small accessories out of pockets, heading for the tee. I raise my arms, close my eyes, fall back.


Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s stories have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, The Baltimore Review, Short Story, Gulf Stream, and others. Her story “somewhere never gladly,” included in Please Do Not Remove, a collection of stories and poems inspired by old Vermont library cards, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her novel, Shape of the Sky (Wind Ridge Books, 2014), was nominated by a Vermont bookseller for the inaugural Vermont Book Award. She has an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been a contributing editor for the journal Hunger Mountain. Her radio show, “Write the Book,” which features interviews with authors, poets, agents, and editors, is heard weekly on 99.3 fm, WBTV-LP in Burlington. It has twice been included in Writers’ Digest’s annual list of the 101 Best Websites for Writers on the web. Archived episodes can be found on podcast sites, and through Shapiro’s own website, https://www.shelaughswithoutus.com/  She lives in South Burlington, Vermont, with her husband Jerry.

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