In the Hall of Gems and Minerals

Savannah Carlin

 

It is not the granite that makes me think of you as I wander the dark Hall of Gems and Minerals in the Natural History Museum. “It’s true, New Hampshire’s biggest crop is rocks,” you said as you spent an afternoon smoothing over the lumps in the yard made rough by granite boulders shifting in the frost heaves. Why are fathers obsessed with their lawns? Ours was sprawling, uncooperative. It refused to drain, blanketed itself with chickweed and dandelions every summer. Here the granite is small, a little nugget next to a placard that says “Granite, Laconia NH,” but to show such a small piece is a lie.

Glaciers had carved the lakes from granite, left giant boulders perched on mountains, ready to roll if the shallow-rooted trees gave way. How can you see this and not believe in God you said when we hiked to the granite-domed top of Mount Kearsarge and gazed out over 50 miles of sculpted earth. The ground gave birth to granite every spring, chunks of every size pushing themselves to the surface. It rose where it wanted to, slow slicing through the asphalt of back roads.

***

You grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, earth made of ancient swamps hardened into shale and basalt. Shale is the rock most often associated with landslides. It absorbs and releases huge amounts of water. Buildings constructed on it are damaged by the forces of the volume change. Floors split open, concrete foundations crack.

Mom grew up on Long Island. That land is still dotted with glacial boulders because even the gushing meltwater that filled New York Harbor could not sweep them into the sea. On the North Shore, where she lived—listened to her dad’s angry yelling each night—the boulders still drop to the beach as the waves suck away the sand beneath them, growing closer to the earth with every tide.

***

Granite emits radon, a slow invisible power. The other old colonial houses near ours had to install monitors in their basements. It is radioactive, odorless, tasteless, the second leading cause of lung cancer. In the Hall of Gems and Minerals, Canadian uraninite glows in black light next to an old Geiger counter. Graphite from Franklin, New Jersey sits in the metamorphic section. When purified, it can control nuclear reactors. You were the one that taught me the sun is a giant nuclear reactor, made neutrons into spinning tops that fueled the whole world.

***

My sophomore year of college, three years before I’d leave you all, Mom stood across the kitchen island one Sunday and screamed, none of you care about Mass, we’re already late! I was ready early, as always, but this time I couldn’t let her confuse my punctuality with belief. I don’t believe in god and you can’t make me, I blurted, tired of splitting myself apart to lie. She shrank back at my words. Then my life is a failure, it’s the parent’s responsibility to instill faith, each word spoken fast, the ends emphasized to make sure her voice didn’t crack as tears silently streamed down her red cheeks. Punishing me by showing how I made her hate herself.

But even before I got my first communion, when the mica and river stones I collected from the woods were tinged with magic, I had never felt the awe you both described. The priest seemed silly in robes, the incense stung my throat, the Eucharist was just stale wafers that didn’t make me feel different. You were both so serious, so sure, people who don’t believe in god are evil. I had to trust you, tell you what you wanted to hear. How could you love an evil child?

She got into our Toyota Highlander. You exploded at us after you saw her eyes swelling from tears, Look at what you’ve done to her, you’re all ungrateful, see how you hurt her? Punctuating your words by lunging towards us teenagers before getting into the car with her. Your eyes are dark blue, reflect whatever you’re feeling, they kept flashing like the big flakes of mica that flecked the granite and sparkled on the edges of our dirt road.

I was guilty but thrilled, feeling whole from standing up to her. We silently piled in our other car and drove ourselves to Immaculate Conception Church. She wasn’t there when we saw you in the parking lot, the Highlander was gone too. I have no idea where she went, you said, your voice terrifying in its softness, all the strength of the anger gone. She left when the usher told her there was no room, we were too late. All of us grew stiff, we had never in our lives not known where she was. She didn’t like being anywhere except home with us. My life is a failure, My life is a failure, My life is a failure. Had I made her not want to be alive anymore?

We waited for her at home, you started listing all the reasons she was sad: we didn’t clean enough, she didn’t have a real garden like she’d always wanted, the winter was too long, we needed to ask her advice more, make her feel needed. You never said that something might be wrong with her. You were a doctor, why did you never say depression?

She finally came back after a few hours. I just needed space. We had made her an almond cake, set the table with china and flowers just as she liked. Her voice was hoarse, her eyes were small and red. I could not apologize because I could not lie. I kept thinking of the flakes of mica I collected from our road, how they always seemed to crumble in my hand before I could bring them home.

***

It is not the copper that makes me think of you. All the little wooden frames around old copper mine entrances that followed us as we drove through the crystal-filled San Juan mountains in Colorado, finding a shrine to the Virgin Mary you’d visited with Mom twenty years earlier. A father-daughter road trip before I started college that fall. I wrote an essay about that trip, and it will be published, but I never told you, cannot tell you.

On that trip I realized I did not believe in god. You seemed small and sad to me for the first time, looking at the shrine and me with trembling eyebrows. I wanted to believe so badly, be lovable to you and feel whole. But I didn’t feel anything. 

How could I explain that those granite mountains felt more like God than church did? Anything humans thought of was insignificant in the face of their solidity. To write it I couldn’t think of you reading it, because then I would think of what you said about “godless” people as we hiked to the top of Mount Kearsarge: how they were selfish, the source of all suffering.

***

A few months after the Colorado trip I sent you a Trout Unlimited article when the waste water container of a mine burst and flooded a river in Montana. We emailed about how sad it was, the wastewater reacting with the pure river, flushing beautiful sinews of turquoise and navy as it killed all the rare Cutthroat trout it passed through, so many heavy metals carried in the molecules of water, sucking all the oxygen from their gills.

***

Mom has never mentioned that day she left church. She does not mention any of the things that I can’t stop thinking of: telling me at twelve you can always get your nose fixed if it stays like that, pushing my older sister down stairs, then locking her outside in winter because she didn’t do her homework. Even tiny babies need to know that you are in charge, they need to physically feel who the boss is… You have to learn to respect God, accept that he is a greater power. Why weren’t you there when she’d hold our hair close to the scalp and say if you don’t move it won’t hurt? I never saw you stop her.

My memories do not exist to her. Thank you for the lovely sunflowers! So gorgeous she texts after I send her a bouquet on her birthday and do not call her. We have not spoken in months. I have not gone to New Hampshire in almost three years. She tells me about getting a B12 shot, an amazing and immediate fix.

Talk to her for me. Make her the kind of mother who says I am sorry, what did I do? The last time I told her how I felt she said My life is a failure.

***

Pyrite, Burma

Sulfur, Czechoslovakia

Dolomite, Yugoslavia

Gold, USSR

Fluorite, West Germany

Tungsten, Korea

The minerals are here, I could reach into the case and touch them, and the countries are gone. Impermanent.

The pinch of her fingers on my hip you’re just ten pounds from perfect, a smile after I cleaned the kitchen you’re such a good kid, her hand slicing through the air in a late-night lecture, nails brushing the hairs on my arm as her hand comes down, I can’t believe I raised such selfish children, the sound of her voice on our last phone call, I miss you. I love you.

***

My life is spent on top of Manhattan schist now. Schist is a metamorphic rock, formed from temperatures of 302º Fahrenheit or greater and 14,503 pounds-force per square inch or more. The pressure and heat create an entirely new rock from whatever is present. Carbon becomes graphite. Limestone becomes marble. Shale becomes schist.

The schist is so stable it can support hundreds of skyscrapers, a Grand Canyon of glassy steel, teeming with people like me.

***

It is not the coral that makes me think of you. Polished and bright red in the gem section, unlike the rough white of the coral islands in the Bahamas we visited to go bonefishing. That day we kept catching glimpses of their silvery bodies whipping back and forth as they hunted in the seagrass beds.

It is your birthday that makes me think of you. You will be sixty in sixteen days. I am twenty four. One of the last things you told me was that no man in your family had lived past 61. I don’t want to lose you, you said in that last talk, sounding small and scared. I was already gone.

Those bonefish disappeared just as I thought I saw them, forever hinting at their own possibility. We didn’t catch any, but I had never seen you smile so hard, your eyes disappeared into crow’s feet.

You taught me to be curious, you told me not to lie, I listened. I am not scared of not knowing what made the minerals and me. You taught me that 99% of the human body is made up of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus—elements just like all the specimens in the dark hall, holding me as I let you go.

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Savannah Carlin is a poet and essayist who graduated in 2016 from Babson College with a degree in business. Her work has been published in JuxtaProse magazine, Sunspot Lit, Feminine Collective, and is forthcoming in Blue Earth Review. She works as a designer in New York.