Friday, July 10, 2009


I've been thinking about memory lately, how most of it's false, how unreliable it is, how difficult it is to find some kind of reasonable truth when we look back. It's, in the words of Kathryn Harrison, a forest. The other day I winged back a painfully brief story from 1996 that relied almost entirely on the memories of others - and my own. This month, on July 20th, is the 13-year anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800. I don't remember much about the day except my editor, who sat with both hands still on his keyboard for a long time, seemingly trying to master the idea of the mess on his screen, and a particular feeling of self-disgust, that I might have seized a person against their will and forced them to a lonely page. I think about the crash all the time. Mostly, I think, because I still wonder what Ms. Lockhart might've thought, if I got her right.

Memories of childhood, island resurface
KC flight attendant's summer escape near crash site

Matthew Ebnet
The Kansas City Star
July 20, 1996.

The few cherished memories from Maureen Lockhart's childhood came from the beach where she spent summers building sand castles and digging for clams. Life wasn't easy then - father had left, mother was dying, she was poor as a beggar. But her grandmother had a small cottage, and it was Lockhart's summer escape from the streets of Brooklyn. In tiny East Moriches, where the days were slow and the breezes seemed fresher than just about anywhere else in New York, Lockhart buried her feet in the sand and had roots.

``She didn't have much at all,'' said her cousin, Patty O'Grady, who lives in Florida and was one of the few people who knew Lockhart. ``She was always traveling, but East Moriches is what Maureen would have called her home. Everything she ever loved was there. ...
Everything. ''

Today, debris is washing ashore on Long Island beaches. That Lockhart would die in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 just a few miles from the cottage surely was no more than a terrible coincidence, O'Grady said. But, she said, it was somehow right. The 49-year-old Merriam, KS flight attendant, ever-traveling, finally came home.


There's an anger in Patty O'Grady and through sobs she confesses she'll be spending a great deal of time in East Moriches. She's angry she'll be there alone. A willow tree stands outside the gray-and-glass cottage, and its branches dip so close to the ground that standing under it is like being in a small room. When O'Grady was 8 and Lockhart 15, they would picnic there and daydream about meeting boys in town.

``Since she was a child, it was her greatest dream to be somebody's wife and mother and have a family,'' O'Grady said. ``That came from the fact that she didn't really have one of her own. She eventually accepted that that would never be, that it might be too late. So she made many people she met surrogate relatives to compensate. '' Under the tree was also their safe place. It was the childhood escape for lives burdened by poverty and illness. Lockhart's mother was ill for years with a heart defect.

Lockhart's father abandoned the family when she was an infant. She saw him only twice, once when she was 4 and again in her late teens, when her mother died. They got into an argument at the funeral, and she never saw him again. Afterward she found solace under the willow tree where, to chase away sorrows, she and her cousin would hold hands, close their eyes and stay quiet until they ended up laughing from the awkwardness of the silence.

Fire Island

``Don't go in the water. Don't,'' O'Grady remembers Lockhart shrieking one hot afternoon. This was Fire Island. They would take their grandfather's 25-foot boat and cross the bay to the island, which closes the bay off from the waves of the Atlantic. There isn't much there today. Sand dunes. Endless whispering reeds. Though now, the tableau is sullied by the work crews gathering wreckage of Flight 800.

Lockhart wouldn't let O'Grady swim there. It was off limits. It stemmed from one day when O'Grady felt an eel brush her leg and Lockhart, terrified, carried the girl to shore. ``This was a girl who gave herself before anything, even when she was scared,'' O'Grady said. They brought books. Lockhart read Little Women; O'Grady read Nancy Drew. ``She was always reading,'' said Karen Gwinn, a friend of Lockhart who lives in Kansas City, Kan. ``She was an English literature major in college and that stayed with her forever. ''

It was on the island that O'Grady said Lockhart developed her need to break free and travel. Each visit there stirred her desire to leave the city and her poverty.``It was a courageous thing for her to do,'' O'Grady said. ``When she was younger, she was one of three generations ... who lived together in the slums of Brooklyn. They didn't want Maureen to leave. They wanted her to stay and get a job and live her life there like they did. ''

In 1970 she got a job with TWA as a flight attendant. She worked domestically for a few years and then began flying internationally. She brought trinkets from every country she visited and handed them out to friends like candy, forever trying to forge - and maintain - friendships. She realized the cost. Her travels compromised her chance for a stable life, O'Grady said.

``She was just always gone,'' Merriam neighbor Maudell Wendt said. Wendt said she talked with Lockhart just once, but for Lockhart a friendship was born. Around last Christmas, after their one talk, Wendt woke up one morning and found a box of cookies at her doorstep.
They were from Switzerland, left by Lockhart.

Returning home

O'Grady won't travel to Kansas City. She can't bring herself to do it yet. So a few of Lockhart's friends will manage her estate. O'Grady will fly to New York to bury Lockhart with her mother.

``She worshiped her mother. She would want this. '' But first: the willow tree. The cottage was sold long ago, but O'Grady hopes to persuade the owner to let her place a plaque beneath in honor of Lockhart. Second: She will put a wreath in the water near the cottage and float it out to sea. Third: Fire Island.

O'Grady has some thinking to do. The thought of Fire Island being so close to the crash site conjures bitterness in her. She now is becoming uncertain of something she had been sure of. ``Maybe she didn't want to be here,'' she said, choking back tears. ``It's an irrational thought, I know. But after all, she had no choice in the matter. '' O'Grady will go to Fire Island soon and stand among the reeds. She'll remember their days there together, until she's satisfied that this place, still, is home.

© 1996 The Kansas City Star

Sunday, May 24, 2009


It's a bit of a puzzle, really, why I broke my toe.

I was talking with a friend the other night, phone tucked between cheek and shoulder, so I could look for a book. Something by Tobias Wolff. "Powder." At the top of my shelf, I fumbled a bookend - a marble statue of a Chinese fu lion – and it slipped off its perch, high on walnut, and landed on my foot.

I bled maybe an hour. I wrapped up my conversation (to end it earlier seemed somehow presumptuous) and had a look: my middle toe was broken, leaning westward. I straightened it, bracing it in splints made from plastic take-out knives in a junk drawer. I found a loose sandal to wear for the next week.

I like to walk, mostly to see my dogs have some fun chasing the birds, but hound dogs take their walks seriously. So, we haven't very much. I like to drive, too, but tactful pedalwork isn't a barrel of monkeys either. Yesterday, at Elliott Bay Book Co. I'd gathered an armful of books. At the top of the staircase, I lost my balance and dropped them.

A nice man helped me pick them up. We kneeled together and we might've been kids playing with marbles.

“It’s the lone sandal," I said. "It makes me clumsy.” I gathered the rest and he noticed my new copy of Darwin's Origin of Species.

"I'm having a party for Ida," he said.

His mustache was obviously conceived in madness. Broad as a cigarette, trained in exclamation, it made him as loud as he was temperate. “Our missing link. Have you read about it? I’ve been waiting for it since I was a boy.”

Me, too. I was a boy who kept his microscope set in good order, who liked to dream of our unknowns with aggravated exuberance, about the bottom of the sea and the ends of Universe, if what was there was a Heaven, or a concept, or a squall of cosmic dust unworthy of study. I looked for fossils at a rusty quarry near home, and one day - a thrill - I found a fern’s leaf on a rock.

I had a copy of Darwin's essays then, too. Numbers on fingers, hand on heart, I measured my remaining years and wondered if I'd ever get to see a photograph or an X-ray, or just a drawing, of our missing link to the apes, if I'd get to imagine what she might've been like, or what God might think.

That’s why, I suppose, I thought having a party about it seemed like such a magnificent idea. "When is it?" I asked.

Here was a man, furious in mustache, flushed with a boy's found certainty, invitation in hand. He looked for fossils too, and I said: “I’ll go."

I wonder what it might be like to write about it for a newspaper - I don't do that anymore - and if it would be like writing about Neil Armstrong or Chuck Yeager's barrier or the war of the worlds. But I’m happy enough in the moment, to have a moment, when a grand question is leavened with a bit of certainty: it's a great thing, all that’s ahead, new ideas and arguments and conversations and books, all impossible to figure.

I don't have a microscope anymore, though.

I don't know if Ida's 47-million-year-old fossil will change the world, or illuminate any better our life's quotidian riddles and canals and turns. I don't know yet what I've learned, I suppose, and neither am I sure what I can. Except, maybe, this: if you haven't limped and tripped into a bookstore on a weekday and dropped everything, you haven't really walked.

© 2009 Matthew Ebnet