logo

Newest Brief Essays

"Women's Hour, YMCA" featured in Kenyon Review Online

"I Second That Emotion" (craft essay) featured in New Ohio Review

Essays

Other Brief Essays

"Advanced Directive to My Future Roommate…"

"Things Gone the Way of Time," recently reprinted in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton)

Essays

Study with Rebecca this summer

Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, June 18-25
APPLY NOW

Kenyon

Kenyon Review PODCAST with Rebecca

(on memoir, genre-crossing, writing practice, and more)

Podcast

Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

New edition includes over 100 writing exercises for all genres.

Word Painting

The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

The Stranger at the Window

from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction


            “Here’s your first assignment,” says the hospice coordinator, “if you want to take it. White male, seventy-four years old.” My father’s age, I’m thinking. “I see by your records that you’re okay with Alzheimer’s. Some volunteers won’t touch it.”
         “My mother nursed her father for years.”
         “His wife says his hands are busy all the time--a scratcher and a grabber. And his language is gone.”
         “I’m fine with that.”
         “She’s exhausted. She can really use the help.”
         “I’ll be there tomorrow.”
         “She says he’s a sweet man, not a mean bone in his body.”
         “The woman who answers the door is trim, about seventy, with a full sensuous mouth painted coral. Her thick dark hair is coifed in a 60s bouffant. She smiles and leads me to the den where a man with silver hair is propped against a sofa back, a flowered sheet tucked neatly beneath him. “We’ve been married fifty-two years,” she says. “Can you believe it? Where did the time go?” Her husband is dressed in steam-pressed peach-and-white striped pajamas over a clean white T-shirt. “Do you think he might be cold?” she asks. Together we maneuver her husband’s stiff limbs into a velour robe. He smiles up at me, his blue eyes squinting mischievously. 
         “He’s over the angry stage,” she says. “And the wandering. He used to get lost. He’d just wander out the door.” Apparently his wandering is now confined to his mind--and his hands. Every arm of the chairs and sofa is shredded.  “I tried an Alzheimer’s apron. Do you know what that is?” I tell her yes, I’ve seen them in nursing homes--aprons stitched with buttons, shoelaces, snaps to keep the patients’ hands busy.
         “But he kept pulling off the fringe balls, putting them in his mouth.”  He yanks free the sheet that’s been tucked over the sofa, then pulls at the belt of his robe, as if to say where is the end of this thing, seeming not to understand that it is attached to him. She takes his hands, smoothes them, clucks soothingly, “There, there.” She reaches behind the couch and brings out a bright yellow box of Legos. “He likes the red ones,” she says.

                                                                      ****
         Volunteering is only in part a way to repay that which has been given. It is also a cry to be needed, to be used. Volunteers often say that they get back more than they give, and I used to consider this a false sentiment, equivalent to the modest pooh-poohing that follows a compliment. Now I know they are right. We do what we do because we need to. Something in the act of volunteering confers on even the most selfish individual a mantle of generosity and caring. The middle-aged man sitting beside me at the first hospice volunteer session needs badly to tell us how badly he is needed. He frowns, crosses his arms over his chest. “People say, how can you do this? I mean, how can you not do it, how can you not help someone? What kind of world would that be?”....


READ THE ENTIRE ESSAY
Stranger at the Window
Other Nonfiction
  • Children Writing Grief
    from The Southern Review

    If it is true, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, that “Childhood is the kingdom where no one dies that matters,” then for many of my students, the kingdom was vanquished early on....

    READ THE ESSAY
  • Excerpt from One Word Deep: Lectures and Readings

    ...."This isn't basket weaving," our instructor shouts. "This is life and death. You've got to become an animal, get down to his level. Out-animal him. McClanahan, front and center."....

    READ THE EXCERPT