All the World's Oceans
My mother lost her independence on Independence Day, the day she married my father and moved from Brooklyn to southern Illinois, where my father worked as a traveling salesman, leaving my mother isolated, surrounded by corn and wheat fields. Nothing much to do but give birth, four in a row, bam bam bam and me, the fourth, the grand finale, before my father got fired for “being too honest,” before we all up and left, back to New York, to a landfill suburb, where I never saw a garlic clove, where pimentos grew in olives, where no one walked except a bald man in a trench coat, someone’s weird uncle, and we all pointed at him because he walked. “Look at that man walking,” we’d say. “He must be crazy.”
My mother loved to travel, to escape, and my father reluctantly accompanied her. He talked about my mother in third person: “The woman is wild, always clomping like a horse. She can’t sit still for a second.” He documented their trips with an eight-millimeter movie camera, and after their Italy trip he showed us footage of Pompeii, the bodies embalmed in plaster white. A volcano erupts and bam bam bam, they’re all dead. One witness on record said the dust “poured across the land like a flood…and shrouded the city in a darkness…like the black of closed and unlighted rooms,” and now it was a museum and I hadn’t thought, not until then, about how nature can be so exquisite, so useful, so loving, so cruel.
Sailors used landmarks such as glowing volcanoes to guide them—our first lighthouses, the traffic signs of the sea, our warning signals. The first lighthouse on record, Pharos Lighthouse, on the eastern point of Pharos Island in Egypt, used an open fire at the top as a source of light. Built about 280 BC, it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and hence, people who study lighthouses are called Pharologists. In Pompeii, a nearby column of smoke, “like an umbrella pine,” a clear warning sign of the impending explosion, triggered a response of curiosity rather than alarm, along with the many little earthquakes leading up to the big Vesuvius roar, and the volcanic explosion fifteen years prior was bad but reparable, so they repaired and repaired, hauled rocks and marble pillars for better days to come, but didn’t think about the ruins I’d be walking through over two thousand years later.
Fifteen years after seeing my parents’ Pompeii footage, I made my way to Pompeii and filmed plaster casts, a hand gripping a nearby foot, unfinished frescoes, petrified canines in corners, a group of women embalmed in a toga-draped, huddled embrace. That night, I returned to my Rome motel room and dreamt of black smoke spiraling from a burning car, a circle of Middle-Eastern boys chanting around it, precisely at the same time my mother died, sitting in the passenger seat of my father’s Nissan Sentra, but this was the 80s before the Internet and cell phones, and I knew nothing about the crash or death for two days, not until after my mother was buried, underground, not unless you count my dream and I do.
My super-8 film shot at Pompeii came back from the lab and I ripped the package open but only blackness filled each frame, “like the black of a closed and unlighted room,” exposed to too much light, or never exposed to any, I’ll never know. Blinded by the light or kept in the dark, not much difference. The Russian meaning of my grandfather’s last name is “blind man.” By the time my grandfather reached Canada from the Ukraine, his name transformed from blind man to Blank. Harry Blank. Blank slate. Fill in the blank. My mother met my father on a blind date. No lights could break through the fog.
When a beam of light isn’t visible from a lighthouse, when there’s too much moisture in the air, an automatic sensor activates a foghorn. The first foghorn, used in 1719, was in the form of a cannon. The Boston lighthouse keeper fired a cannon every hour in the thick of the fog and no one got much sleep, and since my mother’s death, I’ve suffered from insomnia, sometimes waking up every hour on the hour, even without the cannons.
I walked a lighthouse stairwell all the way to the top, and I heard a cannon’s boom, but neither prepared me for my first glimpse of the Pacific—hungry and wild and out of control. At sixteen, in no way versed in trees or stars or birdcalls, I cried, overwhelmed by the ocean’s cobalt waves, the craggy mountaintops, a cloud in the shape of a racing greyhound. I rode my bicycle towards those deep blues and purples and greens, tears running down my face, somewhere near Eureka, California, and later learned the word “Eureka” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning “I have found it,” and I did find it, more beauty than I could imagine.
The rain of ash and pumice spewing from Mt. Vesuvius wasn’t lethal at first, and the eruption, which lasted twenty-four hours, wasn’t blinding at first, so those who fled immediately had a chance to survive, yet those who went back for possessions didn’t have a chance. Scientists believe the fourth Vesuvius surge caused most of the fatalities, when a blanket of scolding ashy air, over five hundred degrees Fahrenheit, covered Pompeii, instantly incinerating bodies, and afterward, a larger deposit of ash buried them, leaving perfect body casts, frozen in time, some clutching jewelry and money, hands curled around gold coins as if they could use them as collateral in their next life.
Harry Blank and his future wife, Becky, were amongst those who saw the warning signs in Russia and had a chance for a new life, when a systematic policy of discrimination towards Jews led to their mass exodus in the early twentieth century. They moved from the Ukraine cornfields to a Montreal boarding house to a Brooklyn tenement to a Brighton Beach high-rise. Grandma Becky gave birth to my mother, and soon after had a botched abortion, leaving her sterile, depressed. Her mother, my great grandmother, died of Novocain poisoning. No warning signs. Just a tooth that needed to be fixed. And bam. One day she sat down in the dentist’s chair and never got up.
My family moved from the Illinois cornfields to a split-level suburban house, a block from the Atlantic—our cross street: Bliss Place. Sometimes I found bliss: when I planted wheat seeds and watched them sprout; when my mother brought home three chickens from her kindergarten class and I claimed one for my own until I tried to kiss it and it poked me in the eye; when Yiddish chatter skimmed the surf at Brighton Beach and my Grandma Becky held my tiny torso up while I screamed and splashed and pretended to swim; and the day my mother gave me a seashell and I stroked its pearly orange inside and she told me to hold it up to my ear and I said why and she said you have to listen carefully and if you do you can hear the ocean and I pressed it against my ear and I said I can’t hear anything and she said, listen, really listen, and I pressed the shell even harder and by gosh, the ocean roared in that shell, the shell that barely fit over my ear—a child with the ocean, all the world’s oceans, in the palm of her hand.
--First published in The Chattahoochee Review
Lori Horvitz’ short stories, poetry and personal essays have appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, including Epiphany, South Dakota Review, Southeast Review, and Hotel Amerika. Her book of memoir-essays, The Girls of Usually, published in 2015 by Truman State UP, won The 2015 USA Best Book Award for LGBT Nonfiction, and the 2016 Independent Book Award (IPPY) Gold Medal Winner in Autobiography/Memoir. Lori is Professor of English at UNC Asheville.