In describing the photo used as the cover image for her debut book of essays Present Imperfect, Ona Gritz writes: “…he’d cast us in shadow, erasing specifics. I could be any woman holding an infant up to the view. I could be you.” Gritz does offer up many specifics while inviting us to recognize ourselves in the fourteen essays that comprise this emotionally intimate collection. Literary Mama readers will know her from her long-running columns “Doing it Differently” and “Calling Home,” which I had the pleasure of editing during my time with the literary journal. She is also the author of the poetry collection Geode; the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability; co-edited More Challenges for the Delusional, an anthology of prompts, prose, and poetry; and with her husband Daniel Simpson, co-wrote Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems. Her writing has appeared in The Bellingham Review, Brain Child, Brevity, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among others. With this new book, Gritz continues to share her experiences of motherhood and disability, but also weaves in stories of sisterhood, creativity, grief, and romantic partnership.
In the title essay, “Present Imperfect,” appearing about a third of the way into the collection, Gritz treads familiar ground, especially for devotees of her Literary Mama columns. Like many new mothers, she was overwhelmed, but her friends who were parents assured her, “Everyone finds it hard at first.” Her issues weren’t exactly universal, as she writes, “Though my cerebral palsy is relatively mild, my dexterity is limited, and my balance—especially when my hands are full—can be less than steady.” Earlier in the book, in “The Body Divided,” Gritz describes how, as a child, she felt less on the right side of her body: “My two hands are sisters. Left beautiful in her grace. Right, Clumsy-Girl, with lesser jobs. Run the sponge down Grace‘s arm after she’s soaped and scrubbed the rest of the body. Hold Barbie still while Grace works the tiny buttons on her blouse, her small fingers steady and sure.”
Trading her Barbie for a real live infant, Gritz needed to figure out the logistics of physically caring for her baby and for herself once her husband had gone back to work. In a truly relatable account, she describes nursing her son to the point of feeling dizzy with hunger, since she was fully committed to the concept of attachment parenting, and could not bear to put him down, letting him cry. She’s convinced that their relationship is one-sided: “Every day, I gazed into my son’s wide blue eyes and fell more in love with him. Yet, the look he gave back was stern and, it seemed to me, judgmental. I imagined he saw me the way I’d begun to see myself, as klutzy and inept.” The epiphany, of course, does arrive, during a fateful Thanksgiving visit with family, when no one else’s arms will do for him. In one of the more memorable moments of the essay and the book, Gritz whispers to her son: “You’re teaching me who I am.”
As readers, we are right there with her on that learning journey. Some of the essays (“Here. Look.”; “Am I the Burning House?”; “Speedometer Song”; “Streaming”; and “The Spider Tattoo”) are brief in length, running three to four pages, and read like prose poems, with their compact, yet satisfying language and imagery. In “Here. Look.” Gritz invites us to see with her eyes: “Here, look at how our heads rest on each other. Notice the negative space, its one border made by my chin and my child’s ear, its other by my collar and the shoulder of his sleeper. That bit of light shaped by the way our dark forms touch—doesn’t it resemble an open-winged bird? Doesn’t it suggest flight?”
In “Streaming” the baby from that photograph is all grown up and about to leave for college. He and his mother embark on a nightly ritual of streaming Friday Night Lights until completion of the series. They grieve “this loss in place of the one rarely mentioned, streaming toward us, and just weeks away.” This little twist at the end, that tweak in meaning for “streaming,” creates a sense of recognizable foreboding for parents of college-bound young adults, and could serve, to those in the thick of raising little ones, as proof that yes, it does go by so quickly.
Gritz is equally at home writing longer pieces. Her agility and ingenuity are evident with “Deluge,” in particular, as she weaves together three storylines—the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, a parable of a man seeking advice from his rabbi about his overcrowded home, and Gritz’s romantic affair while married to someone else. It’s not immediately apparent how these three will connect, but they eventually do, in profound, well-orchestrated ways.
The longest essay in the collection, “It’s Time,” about the author’s late sister Andra (also known as “Angie”), is a deep dive into the painful, tangled past. Gritz’s choice to write in the second person about the murder of her sister, brother-in-law, and their one-year-old son, reveals her initial discomfort and need to distance herself from the subject matter. Thus far, we’ve witnessed the charismatic and fun-loving Andra through glimpses and scenes in other essays, such as “Should I Feel Anything Yet?”, “The Spider Tattoo,” and “She’s Not There.” Gritz describes Andra as the “wild runaway older sister.” Their mother likens her to “a bad penny” that always turns up. Most poignantly, Gritz refers to Andra as her “first love in this life,” adding, “You taught me about being happy. . . You were the brightest light in our house.” This reminded me of when Gritz whispered to her infant son, “You’re teaching me who I am.” I’d expect nothing less from a poet who writes with such purpose.
At a certain point in “It’s Time” there is an artful shift to the first-person, where Gritz comes to terms with her role as storyteller: “Here is where I finally cry. Because, of course, this isn’t your story but mine, and it’s time for me to claim it.” Readers intrigued by this foray into true crime can look forward to more, as Gritz is in the final stages of writing a book about Andra called Everywhere I Look.
Present Imperfect comes to a close with “Love, Eventually,” bringing together all the book’s central themes, starting with sisterhood. Gritz is describing a different kind of sisterhood, one she finds in Hope, her first friend with cerebral palsy: “By loving Hope I was learning to love a part of myself I’d deliberately ignored. Still, I continued to rely on the myth that being married to an able-bodied man meant I wasn’t truly disabled. Only now do I see that he gave me a safe perch from which to peek at my identity as a disabled woman. I could take it on briefly, explore how it felt to claim it, and then go home to my real life. That is my life of pretend.”
There’s that word, again: “claim.” As we have seen with these honest and moving essays, Gritz seeks, over and over, to claim the many facets of her identity. Ultimately, she finds romance and marriage with another disabled person—Dan, a blind writer she met in a poetry workshop, and with whom she has collaborated creatively. Acknowledging that she is, indeed, living a “rich life,” she recognizes that imperfect circumstances and relationships just might have led her there.