A black-and-white headshot of Bridget Lillethorup.

Circles by Bridget Lillethorup: An Interview

First, she found a red drop of blood on her bike seat. It was the day my grandmother convinced herself she was dying, splitting in two at the seams, right down the middle. It was rural Iowa in 1941 and information on growing bodies was hard to come by, harder to discuss. Then, there was a fatal pinprick discovered in her younger sister’s heart. The hole was a gate, and it was just wide enough to take her life. Another flood. My grandma lost her sister the year she got her period. It was the year she found out about all this. All this. The possibility of birth. The guarantee of death.

I can imagine the owl’s eyes glowing on a banister in the family barn, chaperoning late nights for lonesome teenagers. I can hear the two “o’s” in “hoot” as my grandma calls back. I can see her grow up, the way she told me she did: the cereal barrels she cleaned at the Kellogg factory after high school; the nursing hat she wore as a hospital aid; the white lace covering her head before Vatican II; her palms touching in devotion, asking, offering. And I can stay here with her, when
she was most like me now: young, with just a handful of grays (you get one for each person you love, she told me later), not understanding that everything swings around, keeps swinging back, forward, back and forward, hits you in the face sometimes or comes up from behind. At least I think that’s what happens when you turn 30. I’m only 29.

For years, I watched my grandma. Friday nights. Sunday afternoons. Anytime my parents were both working, my sister and I were escorted to her yellow house. And then I got my period. And my parents divorced. And I moved in with her. And I watched her. I watched as she wallpapered every room in the house twice over. As she scrubbed the tiled kitchen floor each week. As she laughed at The Price is Right. As she made bad smelling food and wore too much purple. I saw
everything in her: a childish giggle when we watched cartoons, dentures in a cup when she fell asleep at 4pm. She might ramble an old memory or hum a tune in my ear as I rested in her lap. But never once did I hear her start a sentence with I feel or I love or I want or I at all. I waited. All I wanted was for her to bend down and say I feel sad. I love you. I want to be loved. I need you to understand me. Instead, we orbited. She went through her days. I observed. No one was allowed to be close. To close the distance.

Here’s what happened to her. There was a missed period. There were two wedding rings exchanged, too quickly. There were no birth control pills. There were many rounds of pregnant bellies, many more drops of blood. One child, then another, another, another, another, another, another, another. The sixth baby didn’t survive birth. Another hole in another heart. The seventh baby survived only two days outside the womb. Another fatal pinprick. A gaping hole. A brand of grief, now too familiar. My grandmother’s orbit, predictable encounters with death. The final womb was my own mother. Her entrance into the world was followed by a hysterectomy. The possibility of birth was wrung out.

This next part, I know the least about. I know there were tumblers strewn around the basement by her husband. I know she confessed sins to the priest each week—Bless me, father, but what to confess? I know that one day her second child ran away from home and never came back. I know that on that same day, a hole formed in my grandma’s heart that didn’t kill her but never healed. I know there were conversations that never found their answers—did he call? have you heard
from him?
I know that eventually she stopped asking. I know she felt echoes of emptiness inside her. I have looked into her eyes.

The “o” in ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, she said, if you brought up the past. My grandmother was a broken person.

I like to live in the periphery memories. I like to think about the strokes she made on the cat’s back when she listened to Johnny Cash on her record player. I like to think about her purpley lipsticked mouth asking for a divorce at age 62. I like to remember the mouths of the old tumblers repurposed as cookie cutters; her freshly permed curls the day of her weekly hair appointment; the steering wheel of the Oldsmobile turning away after she dropped me off at Catholic school; the cans of tuna she dumped into the noodle casserole; her famous deviled eggs, extra paprika; the decorative ash trays placed around her home; the teacup collection in her living room; the blue oilcloth that covered the kitchen table; the birthday cake I shared with my cousin the year she made us kiss for a photo; the fitted sheet she secured on the spare bed for me after my parents’ divorce; the bowls of instant oatmeal she heated up for me each morning; the way she contorted her lips when she reminded me to “warsh” the kitchen floors; the trashcan where she found the handle of cheap vodka I hid from her in high school; the black opal ring she gave me one day with no explanation; her eyes when she met my first boyfriend—oh my, he is so handsome; her laugh when I broke up with him—you little heartbreaker, just like me; the curls on my head that she wished were her own; the sound of Alex Trebek’s voice in the vents before she fell asleep each night; the way she repeated Birdie, Birdie, Birdie whenever I came down from my room.

I don’t like to think about: the cloth belt that kept her usually robe closed; her large breasts exposed when I found her unconscious on the floor; the search for a heart specialist; the hole in her neck for dialysis treatments; the hand mirror she held while I brushed her unpermed hair; my own reflection in that mirror: wild curls from knotted sleep, cloudy eyes from studied books, slanted teeth from bitten nails. I realized I had missed her my whole life.

I don’t like to think about: the peppermints she said were soothing; our palms touching; the Burger King hamburgers she wanted everyday near the end; her closed eyes.

On her deathbed, she screamed out. She said, I’m tearing in half right down the middle, right down the middle, right down the middle.

The end. Her blood still in mine. My body. Me, making circles around that block where we lived, sometimes in the middle of the night, thinking I understand what it feels like to live with a little hole in your heart. My blood still circulating.

Bridget Lillethorup is a nonfiction writer living in Omaha, Nebraska. She is a lecturer at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an editorial assistant at Literary Mama. More of her writing can be seen in Sweet Lit, Essay Daily, The Rupture, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and others. Learn more about her here.

We are pleased to present an interview with Bridget Lillethorup below, conducted by Taylor Montaño—one of Superstition Review’s nonfiction editors for Issue 30.

Taylor Montaño: As a writer who not only lives in Nebraska, but lectures there as well, how has Nebraskan culture affected your writing?

Bridget Lillethorup: I used to say that if you could find the Nebraska landscape beautiful then you could find anything beautiful. But that’s not to say that anything about this state or the many cultures within it is simple. It just takes a more patient observer to see everything. It takes time, energy, and care to see through Midwestern stereotypes and Nebraska’s whitewashed history. I teach writing to mostly first-year and sophomore students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and we discuss this a lot. We talk about who we are, and how often that directly contrasts with who people think we are. Being from here sometimes feels like an ongoing battle to dismantle perceptions, and this tension comes through in my writing. There’s a lot to wrestle with in being from red state in the Great
Plains. I often consider geography and the communities that raised me as intersections in my work, and I challenge myself to show them as rounded and complicated, just as they are.

TM: Writing can be challenging to some writers as certain aspects can seem mechanic and mundane. One of these challenges is describing yourself or others.
Your craft is interesting in that you describe yourself through comparing/contrasting yourself to others. How do you battle other trials within your writing so that it is original and un-restricting?

BL: I am lucky to be in a writing group with people I trust deeply. For me, writing must always take part in a community. My group has seen my written voice in many forms, some strong examples, and plenty of weak ones too. They help me stay true to myself.

The first drafts of my essays are usually heavy with images and descriptions. Here’s what I saw. Here’s another image it reminds me of. I often struggle to explain to my audience why these images are important to the larger story. My group can see these holes more clearly and quickly than I can. Sometimes it hurts to be vulnerable with this group; they know my weaknesses better than some of my closest friends. But unchecked, I don’t think I could strike the right balance in my writing and would probably write things that would never leave my creaky old desk.

TM: The use of color within Circles is something to take note of. You mention the red blood, the house being yellow, and your grandmother often wearing
purple. How has visual effects such as color allowed you to translate a memory into prose for your reader?

BL: Color is a beautiful tool for translating a memory to the page. Recording images precisely from my imagination has always been important to me. I remember falling in love with books as a kid, and then being so disappointed when I saw the movie version, because the movies didn’t look like what I pictured in my head. (I particularly remember this feeling with The Chronicles of Narnia). I would go home after the movie and try to remember what the characters and places looked like in my imagination before I saw the movie. I was terrified of losing my original renditions.

As a writer, translating the visual aspects of old memories seems similarly urgent. I don’t have access to many spaces of my youth anymore. My grandma’s house was renovated and has sold twice since I lived there. I want to remember everything exactly the way it was. It’s a fool’s errand, but an important one. I remember the color of the tiles in the bathroom, but not what she kept behind the mirrors. Why? I was never invited “behind the scenes” of her makeup routine. That’s interesting to me. What I remember, or don’t remember, leads me to meaning, which I can then explore through prose.

TM: Furthermore, how—do you think—does utilizing color allow doors to open within your writing?

BL: I clearly remember my art teacher in third grade giving a lesson on the color red. She told us that red is the first color that the human eye detects. Humans are naturally drawn to its deep hues, she said. The assignment that day was to draw a wintery scene that was blue and white save for one element, which had to be red. It could be the scarf on a snowman, a roof, a shovel, etc. It was our choice—where did you want our audience’s eyes to be drawn? What did we want them to remember?

I don’t know if that factoid about the color red is all truth, and obviously people’s perceptions of color vary vastly. But I like the sentiment behind her lesson: when used sparingly, adding color can highlight even the smallest details, or make our big sentiments bolder. Although, saturating an essay with color sounds fun, too.

TM: Your piece has a voice that is uniquely yours. You have parts in which you are honest with your reader and mention in a matter-of-fact tone that “this is what [you] know.” What are the advantages and disadvantages of your perspective alone?

BL: I think it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of your own perspective in writing. I am reminded of something the late Brian Doyle wrote in his famous essay, “Joyas Voladoras ”: “We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend.” I agree; you can never really know someone. I don’t ever want to write an essay where I argue that I have the whole story of someone’s life. I can only present what I see and tell you what I think of it.

For this particular essay, I could have interviewed other people in my grandma’s life to get more angles on my own interpretation of her. I’m sure that would have been a rich experience and given me different ideas to think about. The way a person remembers an event or person is deeply individual. I remember color and shapes, but my sister might remember conversations and verbal expressions better than me, while my mother might remember feelings above all else. For this essay, I was particularly drawn to the lines of connection I felt between my grandma and me. I wanted to keep it tight and focus on what a young person can learn from a grandparent, despite age differences and communication barriers.

TM: You take the concept of circles—circling her house symbolizing your blood cycling within you—and use it to clearly tell your story. Do you often find
semblances through shapes to tell your stories? If not, how does utilizing this shape within “Circles” help your reader glimpse into what you have experienced?

BL: At some point in the drafting process, I have to visualize a structure in order to move forward. Maybe it’s a braid, a series of folds, or a circle, like in this essay. I think shapes carry meaning and associations just like any other literary element. I was drawn to the circle for this essay because it represents processes: fertility, birth, death, grief, blood circulation. When I think of my grandma, I feel these circles moving around me.

I’ve never forgotten the story my grandma told me of getting her period as an adolescent and being terrified that she was dying. As a young girl myself, I related to that fear a lot, and that was one of the first moments I felt a kindship between our lived experiences. I don’t think my grandma and I had too much in common, but we are related, and her experiences live in me somewhere, even the ones I’ll never know about. Her life still circulates in me, and I feel that deeply.

A headshot of Kristina Saccone.

Dementia’s Orphans by Kristina Saccone: An Interview

Kristina Saccone

Six sets of plants and cut flowers surround my mother in varying stages of life and decay. She sits in silence while I help the movers inventory her things. A ficus holds on to the north-facing window. A poinsettia in red foil hasn’t moved since Christmas, and its curled, dried leaves litter the floor. Standing water smells rank in the iris bowl. Bulbs pop out of a wood planter, packed with straw, supposed to foster new spring growth. Instead it’s swampy—she watered it, forgot, then watered it again, and then again and again.

Like a plant, my mother’s mind wilts, molds, droops. First, little things—dates and times—slipped her mind. She fell victim to fraud. She lost words, and without language, she stopped engaging with friends and family. She forgot how to plug in the blender and how to turn off the oven. She failed a driving test.  

Now, movers measure the furniture to see if it will fit in her new apartment in the care home. “This?” they say, pointing to a four decade-old lamp with moth holes in the shade. “This?” to a CD tower, untouched in years. “This? This is a good piece of furniture,” they point to the teak dining room table.

“Let’s try to take as much of it as we can,” I say. Mom sits on the couch, silent with cheeks sagging, biting skin off her fingers. When I hug her, she leans in with her head on my stomach but then abruptly pushes me away.

The movers don’t notice the burst of anger. One of them points: “This ficus is a good, hardy plant.” Its spindly, six-foot branches drink in the suburban sun in the same place it’s sat for decades. “We see this all the time: orphan plants,” they say. Pots that can’t possibly move to a space with three windows instead of twelve. Plants that are easier to throw in the dumpster than stack in a moving truck. “It’s sad,” they say, “to see these thriving, living things left behind.” The movers adopt them, give them a new home and attention. They bring them back to life.

This is the revival I envision for my mother, too. She will move into a building with professional caretakers who understand age and infirmity. She will have everything she needs, from a bistro to a salt water pool and spa. Workout classes, lectures, and concerts all day to keep her busy. A new home to give her water, light, and companions.

Before she forgot how to use her email, she sent notes titled “Memories” with no message, just photos from years past. These images show her holding her grandchildren with a recognition and love unseen now for years. The Christmas cactus blooms pink in the background. Fresh cut lilies extend their stamen and perfume the room. These are echoes from the past: the smiles, the smell, the growth and bloom.

I bring fake peonies to her new home, arrange the stems in a crystal vase, and set it on the sill. The next time I visit, I catch her watering them. The sturdy ficus stands nearby, reaching for its new window. All of us are resilient, despite Mom’s forgetting.

Kristina T. Saccone (she/her) writes short fiction and nonfiction. Her work appears in Fractured Lit, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, Flash Flood, Luna Station Quarterly, LEON Literary Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and others. She edits a limited-run online literary journal with stories about caring for our aging parents, called One Wild Ride, and she’s querying an anthology on the same topic. Kristina is also a Randoph College MFA candidate.

The following interview was conducted by Taylor Montaño, our Nonfiction Section Editor for issue 30, via email.

Taylor Montaño: One Wild Ride is a unifying development that allows those that we care about to be safe and cared for. How might the readers of S[r] contribute?

Kristina Saccone: Thank you for this question. I started this project to help writers find community in reading others’ stories and sharing their own lived experience. One way to contribute is to read the stories on One Wild Ride and then share them widely. You can keep up with the project by signing up for One Wild Ride’s weekly newsletter. I also encourage writers to keep writing and publishing on this theme. Once I find a publisher for a printed anthology of new pieces about the topic, I’ll open for submissions. Every one of us is affected by caregiving at some point in life, and it’s important to embrace these narratives in several ways! 

TM: The permanence of impermanence is explored within Dementia’s Orphans through the decaying of plants. How did you come to understand that this element would help the reader better understand your message?

KS: I think the pandemic amplified impermanence for a lot of us. In my bubble, we had a five-year old struggling with online kindergarten and my mother who, at a distance, was beginning a steady decline into dementia. I had no control over whether my son would flourish, and the situation with my mother was the definition of unpredictable; we suspected something was wrong, but it took a series of crises to be certain she was ill. 

My mother always loved flowers. It was part of the rhythm of her life, now turned upside down. So, when I saw my mother’s plants in such decay, I was struck by the parallels between her dying houseplants and her declining mind. Despite well-intentioned caregivers who tried to stop her, she insisted on watering them again and again and again. By overfeeding them, she interrupted their cycle of nourishment. When she moved and we faced throwing them in the dumpster, I realized that the plants had actually been abandoned long ago by a mind that didn’t make sense anymore. 

Ironically, I find some stability in the impermanence of living things. Plants, whether in our garden or our homes, are a regular reminder that we can grow something anew from a seed; with nourishment, it flourishes; and at the end of its season, it decays and returns to the earth. That life cycle actually brings me hope. 

This year before the frost, we planted allium bulbs. They will blossom in the spring. They will live for a few weeks and then, with summer’s warmth, decay. The cycle of growth mimics how humans hope to live our lives: we are born, we live, and then we die—all things being, hopefully, mostly comfortable, predictable. It is never quite that straightforward though, is it?

TM: How does writing your experiences fulfill closure, both internally and externally?

KS: Writing about my experience with my mother is a necessary thing; I often feel like I’d like to move on from it, write about something new or more creative, but I always return to it. It sometimes brings me closure, but often in the process of writing, I’ll discover connections or truths about the situation that I may not have noticed before. An example from this piece is, as my mother moved, I felt grief for all the things she had to leave behind and the home that we were losing as a family. When one of the movers called the plants “orphans,” it helped label that grief in the moment. But later, writing about it, I realized that the mover had this label in her lexicon because she took personal care with families through these moves. She had deep respect for the lives they were leaving behind. As I wrote, I tried to recenter my experience outside my own grief, tried to see through the eyes of those who do the moving, who experience these types of losses day after day after day. It gave me empathy for this work and immense gratitude for the people who help families like mine through life’s difficult transitions. 

TM: At the end of your piece, there is a feeling of hope and reassurance that is undeniably pulled from the reader. What words—aside from your finishing lines—would you like to give to those of us that are in need of support during these situations?

KS: I started this project because, at the beginning of this journey with my mother, I found comfort and support in reading flash-length stories about caring for our aging parents. It was hard to find these pieces scattered across the internet, so I created One Wild Ride to compile some of the reprints in one place. I hope that those who are in need of support can find it there, through the words of others who have been through similar experiences.

TM: Would you mind further discussing how nature has affected your writing in terms of personification, imagery, and syntax?

KS: Before her dementia, my mom liked to remind me how much I hated the outdoors as a child. Then, after moving from the east coast and living in Colorado for 15 years, I adapted to the bluebird skies, the dry climate, the crystalline snow. I learned to love low-water plant environments, with deciduous trees, grasses, alpine Columbine flowers, twin Goldfinches in the neighborhood trees, the rhythm of the breezes. These memories—which are now just images—flow through much of my writing. 

When I moved back to the east coast about five years ago, the contrast in climate and nature was disorienting for me. I went from arid to humid summers; tall blowing grasses to tangles of hanging vines like a rainforest; from drought to hurricane conditions. It all felt heavy to me, this wet and gloomy environment, also mirroring the sagging plants overwatered by my mother. Nature here in the mid-Atlantic feels Gothic, and lends to lush-but-often-haunted personifications of people and spaces. 

TM: Do you often do research on the plants you write about to better understand how it can benefit your writing?

KS: I’m a former journalist, and one of the old habits I can’t shake is the need to research details in my creative nonfiction. It’s sometimes my downfall because researching for accuracy can go on ad nauseum—sometimes to the detriment of the writing. My process for this story began with a strong image that is linked to a deep emotion. I find that when my writing begins that way, research sometimes derails whatever has inspired me. So for this piece, I went as far as to ensure I was naming the plants correctly, but I left it at that.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece of creative nonfiction about a rogue tomato plant that popped up unexpectedly in my flower bed in October and November. I was fairly sure it would be a story about climate change, but I didn’t want to assume that tomatoes don’t grow that late in the year in my part of the U.S. I did a lot of research about climate zones, tomatoes, and the changing seasons. I wouldn’t have been comfortable putting that story out for print without that research. 

So, I believe that sometimes research is absolutely necessary in creative nonfiction, but other times, if you feel it getting in the way of your writing process, I think it’s okay to let it go.

Kristina Saccone can be found on Twitter at @kristinasaccone and @one_wild_ride.