Megan Vered

Falling Off the Cliff

I stand close to my mother, press my toes against the gravel. Looking down at the gigantic blur of green, I imagine I am flying. If I were a bird I could lift off and glide over those trees. My wings would open big and shimmer in the sun. I am only five years old but I recognize with great clarity that falling off the cliff would be a death drop.

This brush with mortality came later in the day, after my three-year old sister Evie and I played pinecone dolls on the floor of our army green tent--our all time favorite camping game. We'd been to the beach and filled a paper bag with pinecone scales that--with a little imagination--morphed into chairs, tables, people, animals. My little pinecone mother was making special food for Evie's little pinecone dog when Daddy pressed his face through the fabric doors and cried, Let's go mining for gold! His enthusiasm was contagious. We packed up supplies, climbed into the station wagon, waved goodbye to our campsite at Sand Pond. Mommy at the wheel, Daddy in the passenger seat. My four siblings and me sardined in the back with Angus the family dog and our 16-year-old cousin Lennie, who was visiting from Boston.

I track the highway signs from my seat in the way back where Evie and I are nestled together. The car windows are open. I feel the warm dusty breeze against my cheeks. I see a sign that says Sierra City. Now that I am five I can make out the words. Daddy told us that the gold mines are up in the hills. My mind conjures up mountains made of shimmering rocks. We drive for what feels like forever. Finally I see another sign and yell out, Five miles to Sierra City! By the time we arrive we are stuck together like taffy in the back of the car.

We camp at Sand Pond in the Sierras every summer. While Daddy's main camping supplies are a Coleman thermos and high power binoculars, Mommy's are a broom, rubber gloves, a bottle of Pine Sol and a hard bristle brush, which she uses relentlessly in the outhouses near the campsite. While Mommy oversees our domestic day-to-day needs, we run free on the beach, cool off in the pond and hike the granite hills. In the mornings we emerge from the warmth of our flannel-lined sleeping bags to the aroma of fresh coffee, bacon and fluffy pancakes that Mommy makes on the Coleman stove.

We get off the highway and drive down the main street. Mommy peers over the edge of the steering wheel and carefully turns right onto a narrow paved road as per Daddy's instructions. I can see the hesitation in her hands. It's not long before the road turns to gravel. We're tossed up and down in the back seat as the car bumps over the uneven surface. The uphill thrill fades when we realize that we are on a fire road as narrow as a pipe cleaner. Mommy's hands tighten on the wheel while Daddy, the adventurer, urges her forward. Our heads bob backwards as the car struggles up the steep incline. Evie and I throw our heads back and feel the delicate whoosh of our long hair against bare shoulders.

The road flattens and suddenly the car stops. We are at the end of the fire trail where a gigantic basin looms directly to the side of the car. There is no way Mommy can turn the car around. The car is too long, the fall too steep. I feel her fear and it tingles down my body like a shock wave, all the way to my toes.

Daddy takes over and orders, Everyone out of the car. One by one we unpack ourselves from the station wagon. Mommy claims a spot and stands far enough away to protect us, but close enough to keep her eye on the car. She has one hand on Evie and the other on me. Looking down at the vast expanse of green pines, I imagine I am flying. If I were a bird I could lift off and glide over those trees.

Daddy, who is legally blind and we all know cannot see well enough to drive, is now in the driver's seat, with cousin Lennie guiding. The wheels spin against the gravel as Daddy puts the car in reverse. He backs up slowly. Lennie yells at him, Cut the wheel! Mommy grabs my hand and holds Evie in her other arm. The front tires make a crunching sound on the gravel. The car hovers at the edge. For a minute the car is my sister bird and we are both flying over the expanse, free of care. A balloon of dust collects behind the back tires as they press into the dirt, making me cough. Something squeaks as the front tires spin. The car is teetering. I look up at Mommy. Her face has blanched white. I squeeze her hand and realize that I have to stay with her and the car and the gravel and my blind father. I have to keep my eyes on my father who is using every muscle in both arms to keep our family car from dropping off the cliff. I have to watch my baby sister who is too young to understand what is happening. We are all silent, holding our breath as Daddy continues to nose the car forward and back. The car lurches, and again the wheels spit dust.

I break my promise. Covering my eyes, I get lost in the exhilaration. Flying free above the trees. Soaring. Gliding. I know I should be watching. Mommy always says that I am better eyes for Daddy than she is because I notice every detail. But I don't want to see the car flying. I want to fly alone.

My flying is disturbed by the sound of my brothers whooping and carrying on. Slowly, carefully I uncover one eye, then the other. I see that Daddy has swept Mommy up into his arms. The sound of his laughter echoes into my trees, my birds, my soaring sky. Cousin Lennie is bouncing up and down on his heels, grinning with admiration. Evie grabs my hand, her other thumb in her mouth. My older sister is now behind us, hands on our shoulders, a stand-in mother hen. Above the tire marks and displaced gravel sits the station wagon. It is now facing the other way.

My older brothers are pounding their chests like Tarzan and jumping around like crazy monkeys. You did a 12-point turn! Lennie exclaims. Daddy places Mommy back on the ground and adjusts his thick glasses. Who says I can't see? Evie and I, standing close to Mommy kick gravel around into small mounds. My brothers pick up rocks and throw them out over my trees.

Mommy calls, Little girls in the back! Evie and I climb over the beige vinyl seat into the stifling heat of the car. Mommy turns the key and the engine rumbles. I look out my window at thick green clumps slowly disappearing from view. I grab Evie's hand. Let's see how many trees we can count before they go away! I start. One, two, three. She joins me. Four, five, six. By the time the car is heading back down the hill we have made it to 50. Mommy, 50 trees! Evie calls out. Mommy, 50 trees!

When the bumpy feeling stops I know that we are on the paved road. The gentle bob of Evie's head on my shoulder lets me know she has fallen asleep. I stare out the window. The trees are gone. When I see the sign, I open my mouth to call out, Sand Pond, 10 miles! The words are forming and about to spill out when I realize that Daddy's eyes are back and he must be reading it himself. How else could he have turned the car around? I flew off the cliff like a big strong bird and while I was soaring the car stayed on the ground. This is the moment I realize we both have magical powers. I am a bird and Daddy is Superman.

Hold a Good Thought

When I was five, the girl who lived around the corner told me that because I did not believe in Jesus, I would go to hell. I marched home--ponytail swinging in furious circles--and asked my mother, Am I going to go to hell? And what is hell anyway? My mother tightened her apron around her waist, sat me in her lap, and patiently explained that we were Jewish. That was the day I learned that we did not believe in Jesus as a god. Mom did not tell me about what we did believe in--and I didn't ask--but she assured me that I need not worry about heaven or hell.

I knew little to nothing about God or religious dogma, as I had never seen either of my parents pray. We never set a place for God at the table. Prayer did not pass our lips upon retiring for the night. My father's irritated outbursts of Goddamnit! and Goddamnitall seemed to be the closest he got to God. My mother believed religion was a crutch, though she often said, when referring to a devout person, I wish I could believe in something greater than me the way she does. It would make life so much easier.

The closest my mother ever got to prayer was to say, We'll hold a good thought.

About a year after this neighborhood incident, my parents went away for the weekend. They left my younger sister Eve and me in the capable hands of our housekeeper, James. I loved James even though I resented her firm discipline. I was taken with her skin, the color of rich coffee, and her gleaming white teeth. She was much taller than my tiny mother and very beautiful. A devout Baptist, she often gave thanks to God and to Jesus. To this day, she laughs every time she tells the story that, after she had been working with our family for several months, Daddy said to her, You know, James, we are very happy with you, but we really weren't counting on so much Jesus.

James brought two books with her that weekend: a black hardback called The Bible and a dog-eared paperback called The Readers' Digest. The Bible was thick and James moved her lips and rocked back and forth when she read it, which led me to believe it was very important.

I gave James my bedroom and bunked with my sister. After dinner, James bathed us, and we happily climbed into our new PJs Mom had left for us as a special weekend gift. We plucked our two favorite books, Mr. Bear Squash 'Em All Flat and McElligot's Pool from the bookshelf and eagerly awaited our bedtime reading ritual. Unexpectedly, James gently urged us to kneel by the side of our beds and repeat after her:

Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.

My sister and I, ages six and four, were on our knees. In a house where belief in God was outranked by rational thought, we were doing something unimaginable. We were praying. What James did not anticipate is how this prayer--one that provided her with magnificent solace--would spawn a serious fear in me. I lay awake every night for months after that night convinced that I would die in my sleep. James failed to consider the potential outcome of teaching heathens to pray without offering a solid explanation of the afterlife. I don't think that we told Mom about the praying episode until we were much older. And at some point I outgrew the-middle-of-the-night fear of death.

As I matured, I came to learn what prompted my mother's lack of faith. Mom was the oldest child in her family, followed by her brother Saul, and then Sumner and Beatrice--the inseparable twins. Beatrice had blond curls and blue eyes, giving her unique status in this family of brown haired, dark-eyed children. My mother doted on her. But when Mom was six, Beatrice, then eighteen months, became ill and suddenly died. All photographs and possessions were destroyed, and my mother's parents never spoke about her again. Mom said that after Beatrice died, she lost all faith, unable to reconcile how God could take away such a beautiful baby who had never hurt anyone.

I am not sure how fanciful my mother was before age six, but any sense of whimsy or belief in the unknowable vanished. Not only did she refuse to read fairy tales, but she pretty much turned her back on God. I began to understand that this was one of the reasons we never prayed in our family. This is why, for my mother, the words that took shape were, Let's hold a good thought.

But then a point came, when Mom was approaching ninety, when she began to say, Let's pray AND hold a good thought. Just for good measure. Just in case one approach failed, she had a backup. Maybe she was beginning to think there was a possibility, after all she had lived through, that something bigger was calling the shots. Just maybe.

During Mom's memorial, the rabbi held the five of us in a circle--my brothers, sisters, and me--and pinned a torn black ribbon on each of our chests to represent the tearing open of our hearts. She told us that according to Jewish belief, losing a parent is the hardest loss because you only have one mother and one father. We recited the mourner's Kaddish together. I yearned for that sure-footed faith that Mom always wished for, because it would make life so much easier. But I couldn't find it. I felt untethered, like a marionette whose strings had gone slack.

Soon after Mom's death, I went to James' house for a Kwanzaa celebration. I was invited to light a candle in honor of Mom and say something in her memory. As I held the flame above the bright white candle, I was also aware of being the only white person in the room. After the ceremony a woman approached me. Your mother is now an angel who is looking over you. I so wanted to believe that my mother was eternal, but what little faith I did have was falling short. I yearned to believe in something greater than me, but I couldn't see that far. I toggled helplessly between the prayer that James had tried to instill in me and my mother's dismissal of any suggestion of the divine.

Later that month I had an experience that gave me the words I'd been struggling to find. James invited my sisters and me to attend an awards brunch in downtown Berkeley. She was among a vibrant group of women adorned in colorful fabrics and elaborate hats, all being honored for volunteer work in the African-American community. The microphone passed from one proud hand to the next. A reverend draped in African fabric gave the closing sermon about the role of creativity in our daily lives, giving rise to a chorus of Amens. As the reverend returned to her seat, the moderator acknowledged how hard that must have been, given that she had just lost her mother. In an instant my sisters and I were encircling her. We recognized the tears clouding her eyes. As we stood huddled in a group embrace, a woman approached, took a firm hold of her elbow. Your mother is with you now, you know. She is with you all the time. The reverend paused, gained control of her emotions. In faith I know that to be true, but I'm not feeling it yet.

I repeated that phrase to myself for days. In faith I know that to be true, but I'm not feeling it yet. It made so much sense to me. Like sitting down at the piano, knowing there is a song in you and waiting for it to come. Or holding a pen in hand, knowing there are words and hanging on until they show up. Like opening your heart to prayer and believing that someone will hear you. Like holding a good thought. Right, Mom?

I Am a Marionette

"Mom, I'm bored."

"Go play with your sister."

"She's boring."

"Go read a book."

"I already did."

"Then draw a picture."

"My crayons are broken."

Geh shlog zich kop en vant. (Literal translation: "Go bang your head against the wall.")

This is only one example of the Yiddish disciplinary tactics employed by my mother when we were kids. Yiddish was Mom's first language. She was not even exposed to English until she went to kindergarten. Yiddish was also the secret language that my grandparents reverted to when they did not want us to understand them. We caught on fast and learned to crack the code. We knew that gib a cook meant "take a look"; that gay gezunte hate meant "go in good health"; that tsorris was "suffering." And, of course, my grandmother bathed us in Yiddish endearments that were well understood: shayna meydela, shayna velt, shayna mamela (literal translations: beautiful maiden, beautiful world, beautiful little mother).

I am bruised, not just by my mother's death, but also by the passing of the Yiddish language and the first generation American-Jewish experience. Ancient voices spoke to me through my mother's flesh. Her presence kept me linked to her history and the heartbeat of my ancestors. Encircled by the reverberation of past life experiences, I gained comfort and strength. Now that she is gone, precious ties have been severed.

I am a marionette whose strings have been dropped. Not that Mom controlled my every move like some manic puppeteer, but her presence was a lifeline that kept me linked to those who came before. Without her I feel rootless, lifeless. When I move my arm to gesture to a stranger or lift my leg to walk, there is nothing holding me in place. I am in free fall with no point of reference. No one to slip an arm through mine and keep me linked to tradition, ritual, custom.

Mom's Yiddish expressions--vibrant word salads--both entertained and annoyed. She held high expectations that I would rise to the occasion and be a good sport. When I complained about life being unfair, her stock response was, "I never promised you a rose garden." When my grousing persisted, she said, "I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your mouth, young lady." When I persevered with no end in sight, she switched to Yiddish.

Gay hack mir nisht kan chinik. (Literal translation: "Don't bang me a teakettle," as in "stop nudging me!")

I can also hear her voice of derision when she would see something in a store that was too kitschy: Ach, so ongepatshket! (Literal translation: "Too fussy.")

The word ferblunjit was used when she was feeling "at sixes and sevens" or out of sorts. (Literal translation: "Mixed up and lost.")

When we sneezed, a Zay gezunt was bestowed for the first three sneezes. (Literal translation: "To your health.")

Sneeze number four, however, invoked, Gay en drered du krigst shein a kalt. (Literal translation: "Into the earth with you already; you're getting a cold.")

When we did good, Mom would kvell; when we did her proud, she would shep naches; when we were bad, she'd cry, gay avek.

Without the melody of my mother's song, my strength falters. No wall of wisdom to push against so that I can rebound. I have lost all ricochet power. And without the strings that have kept me tethered to Mom's story, my life appears flat, one-dimensional. And on top of this, I am guilty of dropping the ancestral ball, having never used Yiddish expressions with my own children with the exception of the occasional oy vey.

As we grew older and our children matured, Mom's Yiddishisms shifted to expressions of grandmotherly endearment.

Ahz m'lebt der lebt mir. (Literal translation: "If you live long enough, you will live to see it happen.")

Mishugeneh ganz, mashugeneh griben. (Literal translation: "Crazy geese, crazy goslings.")

I am a marionette whose strings have gone slack. I forget birthdays and punch lines and how our family first met certain friends. Lose track of bloodlines and which cousins are on which side of the family. I look at photographs and cannot decipher whether the girl next to me in the photo is an elementary school friend or my next door neighbor's sister. What will bring me back to life now that Mom is gone? Who will repeat the stories to me with such care and precision? An entire civilization is heaving its final, inconsolable breath.

I search through boxes of mementos for reassurance that I will not lose sight of my ancestral footprint. In among the greeting cards and photographs I find lined paper, folded in thirds. A four-page summary of her lineage, her first generation American-Jewish experience in her perfectly appointed handwriting. I take a deep breath and say thank you.

I dream one night after Mom's death that she is crying. She tells me that she is feeling undone. "You mean ferblunjit, Mom?" I tell her that I am a marionette who has lost her strings. "We make a fine pair," I say.

For weeks, I sob myself into a stupor before falling asleep. Each wave of tears evokes another level of loss. Who would ever love me the way my mother did? Who would hold my strings with such tenacity? Who would kvell over my every triumph no matter how small? She knew every soppy detail of my life story. The name of every boy I ever loved, every girl who turned against me. She was the one who soothed me through the endless falling outs and rapprochements with my younger sister. Who else would ever be so enchanted by the tiny particles of my life? And who else but my mother would tell me to bang my head against the wall?


Following her mother's death in 2011, Megan Vered penned a family story that she sent to her siblings every Friday. Her essays are part of that collection.

Raised in Berkeley in the 60's in an unconventional Jewish family, Megan extracts emotion, humor and meaning from her life's stories, inviting the reader to become part of her family.

Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the "First Person" column of the San Francisco Chronicle, Amarillo Bay, Crack the Spine, The Diverse Arts Project, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Existere Journal of Arts and Literature, and The Oklahoma Review. She is among the authors featured in the "Story Chairs" short story installation at Jack Straw Productions in Seattle.


Roya Hakakian
Lynn Levin
Megan Vered


>We are pleased to announce that Anne-Marie Thompson is the recipient of the Mezzo Cammin scholarship at the West Chester University Poetry Conference and Wendy Sloan is the recipient of The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project scholarship.

Judith Schaecter: I found the beauty of stained glass to be the perfect counterpoint to ugly and difficult subjects. Although the figures I work with are supposed to be ordinary people doing ordinary things, I see them as having much in common with the old medieval windows of saints and martyrs. They seem to be caught in a transitional moment when despair becomes hope or darkness becomes inspiration. They seem poised between the threshold of everyday reality and epiphany, caught between tragedy and comedy.

My work is centered on the idea of transforming the wretched into the beautiful--say, unspeakable grief, unbearable sentimentality or nerve wracking ambivalence, and representing it in such a way that it is inviting and safe to contemplate and captivating to look at. I am at one with those who believe art is a way of feeling ones feelings in a deeper, more poignant way.

I would describe my process as derived almost entirely from traditional techniques in use for centuries. The imagery is predominantly engraved into layers of glass; only the black and yellow are painted and fired on in a kiln. The pieces are soldered together in a copperfoil and lead matrix.
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