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Weekly Featured Essay

In this week’s featured essay, we venture alongside as Eileen M. Cunniffe’s parents stumble into an ancestor while travelling in Ireland and open a complex and unexpected familial history.

The Granny, the Grocer and the Cobbler

The phone roused me near midnight, and I pulled back the covers and stumbled toward it. I’d hardly managed a hoarse hello when my mother’s voice rushed at me from the other side of the Atlantic, wide awake and seemingly oblivious to the five-hour time difference.

I could tell from her voice everything was fine. More than fine, it seemed.

“How’s the trip?” I asked as I climbed back into bed and propped a pillow between my back and the knobby brass headboard.

“Great,” she yelled. “We’re having a grand time. We’re in a pub.”

Mom was shouting, no doubt because of the noise around her, but also because she was unaccustomed to speaking to me from so far away. Mostly, I think she was yelling because she was—uncharacteristically—a bit tipsy. I pictured her always-pink cheeks flushed a shade deeper. I imagined the comical scene in a dark, smoky pub as she and Dad had figured out how to place an international call.

My parents had been gone for more than a week. I’d been tracing their itinerary on a map on my dining-room table: Shannon to Galway, Mayo to Sligo, and now Derry, in Northern Ireland. They’d been planning this trip for months, dreaming it for years. All their parents were born in Ireland and emigrated to America. Each couple had met in Philadelphia, made their lives in that city, and never once went back to where they were from.

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A Story Is Born

by Susan Lynn Solomon.

Before I speak of the odd things that happened in my house, I must explain how I first encountered the spirit.

A number of years ago I was the in-house lawyer at a small company in Niagara Falls. Charlie Ganim, my employer, also owned a bed and breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a small Canadian town across the river from where I lived. A block off Queen Street, the house stood two stories above an ancient brick foundation. Yellow clapboard with brown shutters and trim, the Blake House was one of many inns dotting that quaint historic town. That ancient brick foundation was set in place soon after the town was set afire by American forces during the War of 1812. Zackery Myerson laid the foundation on the site where a retreating British officer was killed. He built what today might be considered a small cottage on that plot of land and established a bakery in it. Over the years subsequent owners extended the cottage, and in 1859 Horace Blake purchased the building as a residence for his aging mother. Since then, the house became the residence of at least ten different families before Charlie purchased it in 2003 and turned it into an inn.

I’ve described the history of the Blake House, because its age had given a ghost ample time to take up residence there. At least, that was the legend attached to the house.

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Disappearance

by Patrick Dobson

I hoped the day would remain overcast. A winter day with a crystalline sky set my teeth on edge and a peculiar tension gripped my insides. If the sky cleared, I’d grow frazzled. The hard-edged light of the season scraped hard against my nerves. My thoughts raced. Sometimes the stress was so great I wanted to vanish . . . zip, gone.

I don’t easily deal with this peculiar malady sitting still. The return of night or of clouds and freezing rain and snow would settle me again. Something about the nuances of darkness was calming, reassuring. In the meantime, work always helped. The adrenaline and repetitive nature of hard labor soothed my agitated soul and quieted my fitful mind. Once my head cleared and my heart steadied, labor’s balms got right to the spiritual mark. I could ignore the noise of a clear winter day and put my head down and do my job, get home, and hide from the light.

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The Last Olympian

by Karen O’Neil

On the evening that my mother died alone in her Chicago apartment just short of her 100th birthday, I was 1000 miles away in Austin, Texas, standing in line with my husband and our eight-year-old grandson, Peter, waiting for Rick Riordan to autograph the very latest in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. This was a moment

Peter had been anticipating for months. He had carefully instructed me the night before to get to Book People as early as I could to secure a prime place in line for the evening event. “Believe me, Grandma,” he had said earnestly. “You’ve got to go early. You don’t know how many people will be there. Go at 8:00. Go as soon as you wake up. You’ll get a much better spot.”

But on a sunny May morning, I had not fully heeded Peter’s instructions. First, I stopped along the way to have coffee at an outdoor café. I did the Times crossword (an easy Tuesday), and then I put in a quick call to my mother, basking in a pace of life that made such leisure possible. Dawdling in the morning was a heretofore forbidden treat, the first course in what felt to my husband and me like a feast of retirement—beautiful weather, beautiful grandchildren, enough work to be interesting, but not enough to be stressful. We were there for the semester while Bob taught a course at the University of Texas Law School, a long-awaited and highly prized shared adventure.

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The Next Fifty Years

by Stephanie Lennon

Once Grandpa’s heart gave out, there was no point in Nana continuing her treatments.

“Stop the dialysis and she’ll be gone within a week,” the doctors had said.

Five years prior, at their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Grandpa had joked that the next fifty would be much easier. We were all hesitant to laugh, knowing even then that neither of them were in great shape.

A family meeting was called. Nana wasn’t “fully there” anymore, so she didn’t have much of a say in her own damn demise.

She just knew that she wanted to be with Grandpa.

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Trunk Stories

by Clifford Royal Johns

When I inherited my paternal grandfather’s railroad pocket watch, I worried about actually using it. It meant a great deal to me, so I didn’t want to lose or break it. The watch is one of those things I have where touching it, or even just seeing it, reminds me of the person who owned it. For instance, when I bake in my friend Alvina’s pan it reminds me of her. My grandfather wound that watch every morning and wore it every day from the time he began working for the P&LE railroad in the early 1930s. It was just part of his way, a way that affected my whole outlook.

When I was a boy in the 1960s, my grandfather would often drive down from Pittsburgh to our dairy farm in southwestern Pennsylvania to spend the weekend, sometimes to hunt, sometimes to fish, and other times just to help with repairs around the farm. I liked his visits because he paid attention to me, even though I was the youngest of four kids, and he seemed to genuinely like teaching me things. In retrospect, it’s clear he taught me lessons that were often unrelated to the actual subject at hand, for instance, instructing me about fishing might have really been about the potential payoff of patience, or taking apart an engine and putting it back together might have been about organization and the proper sequence of things—“So you don’t have any parts left over when you’re done,” as he would say.

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The Color Blue

by Katie Milligan

My memories are all tinted with blue.

I remember four blue-raspberry mouths stained with the sticky sugar of popsicles. I see my grandfather’s jeans, stiff yet worn, bouncing up and down as he gives me a ride on his knee. There is the teal woolly yarn of my baby blanket against a flushed cheek, clutched in my tiny hand. Blue is nostalgia. Blue is childhood.

I can remember the cornflower blue, fuzz-worn fabric of the snack-stained matching armchairs my parents sit in—big for him, small for her. I finally settled on sky blue for my bedroom walls after surviving my angsty neon-green teen years. My mother made a sinfully delicious dessert for my 11th, 14th, 16th, and 18th birthdays, full of rich blueberries and graham crackers and whipped cream. Blue is familiar. Blue is home.

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You Are Here

by Kelly Garriott Waite

The picture, taken before color photography was ubiquitous, is gradations of light and dark, bright and shadow. In it, my father straddles a three-foot log, a jagged vertical crack down its center like a lightning strike. The bark is rough and covered in places with moss. The grass surrounding it is mostly short and neat, as if the log had been dragged to this space specifically to make a seat for my father. But it can’t be comfortable: Dad’s right leg bends back, the toe of his shoe dug into the ground as if for purchase. His left leg is forward, his heel pressed into the grass. His pants—the seventies equivalent of Dockers–are sharply creased down the center. He wears a button-up shirt, untucked, and Converse tennis shoes, their dark laces loosely tied. Dad holds a five-string resonator banjo, its round drum resting on one leg. His smiling face is in profile, that characteristic dimple in his cheek as he looks at the middle finger of his left hand, pressed behind the D string’s third fret.

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Sequence

by Sarah Belliston

Ever since my son Jack could walk, he’d head to my bookcases and pull the books from the shelves into a pile. Sitting there like a hen hatching chicks, he’d pick a thick volume and set it on his outstretched legs. He’d turn it sideways so the weight of the book rested on his feet and the cover opened into his lap. Then his dexterous middle fingers would run along each side of the book, catching just one page, and flip it down. One by one. Over and over. When the book was finished, he’d turn it around and repeat the process. My family joked that he was reading; I joked that he loved books as much as I did.

At eighteen months old, a team of doctors diagnosed Jack with autism spectrum disorder.

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MORE RECENT WORK: Like what you’ve been reading? All the fine essays published throughout the history of the magazine can be accessed via the contributors/archives page.


Winter/Spring: Volume 7, Issue 1 New Issue Released!  

Twenty-two essays from Volume 7, Issue 1.


New Anthology Released

We are pleased to announce publication of our new anthology Encounters, which features fifteen eclectic essays originally appearing in bioStories magazine, all focused on some of those chance encounters that can transform our lives.


Issue Reviewed at NewPages

Appreciation goes out to Katy Haas at NewPages for taking time to review the Winter/Spring 2016 Issue.