Summer 2019 - Creative Nonfiction

Kristine Langley Mahler

Two Truths and a Lie


My grandparents were Lake Superior basalt, freshwater-rinsed and rocked over the years until headstone-smooth.

My father tried to teach me how to skip them, but I never got the angle correct when letting go. 

I practiced until I got it right. 


I learned about my grandfather through my  father.

I learned about my grandfather through my grandmother.

I learned about my grandfather through ship manifests on  


My grandfather crewed on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

My grandfather crewed on the Edmund Fitzgerald during its eight-year stretch with no worker injuries. 

My grandfather died on the Edmund Fitzgerald.


My grandfather was dead before my father married my mother.

My grandfather was dead before I was born. 

I saw my grandfather’s grave before I turned twenty-two.


My grandfather’s first wife was my grandmother.

My grandfather was 38 when he married my 26-year-old grandmother. 

My grandmother’s parents were dead when she married my grandfather.


My grandmother’s first husband was named David.

My grandmother’s old boyfriend was named David. 

My father is named David.


My grandmother had four sons and two daughters.

My grandfather had five sons and three daughters. 

My father doesn’t know if he has half-siblings because he never asked.


My grandmother could trace her line back to the Mayflower.

My grandfather could trace his line back to Leif Erikson. 

My grandfather was the Minnesotan-born son of
fresh-off-the-boat Norwegian immigrants.


My grandmother’s sisters disapproved of her marriage to a divorced man.

My grandparents were married seven months before their first daughter, Sharon, was born. 

My grandmother’s sisters begrudgingly approved of her marriage to the man.


My aunt Sharon died in a motorcycle accident when she was nineteen.

My grandfather died two years later, leaving behind my 48-year-old grandmother. 

My grandmother did not reconcile with her sisters.


My grandparents were only married for twenty-two years.

My grandmother had help raising her children when my grandfather was crewing on the lakes. 

My grandmother spoke only to my father when we came home to visit.


There were years of noise in my grandmother’s house.

There were years we came to Duluth and did not visit my grandmother. 

There were years of silence in my grandmother’s house.


When I was a child, my father told me one story about my grandfather: the parable where he returned home in November, laden down with $38 worth of gambling quarters, and allowed his sons to scavenge through his pockets, keeping whatever they found as my grandmother looked on, her wallet thin from economizing all year.

When I was an adult, my father told me one story about my grandfather: the parable where he buried Sharon and returned to the ships the next day. 

My grandfather did not provide for his family; my grandfather did not try to provide for his family.


I loved my grandfather when I heard these stories because they made him real.

I loved my grandmother when I heard these stories because I pitied her. 

I hated my grandparents when I heard these stories because I pitied my father.


My father told me his childhood was throwing dirt balls at red convertibles and racing back into the dark alley behind his house.

My father told me his first grade was wearing the same shirt every day until once, he wore a different one, and his teacher fell all over herself complimenting him on how nice he looked. 

My father mentioned his father often when he talked about his childhood.


My father’s childhood sounded forlorn.

My father’s childhood sounded epic. 

My father’s childhood sounded funny.


My grandfather’s four sons folded magazines into shin-guards when the ice froze on the hockey rinks.

My grandmother waited for the lake water to thicken, sending her husband home for the season, but after every lean Christmas she hoped the ice would thaw early and send him away again. 

I waited for my grandmother’s ice to thaw but it did not.


My grandfather’s absence did not affect my childhood.

My grandfather’s absence did not affect my father’s childhood. 

My grandfather’s absence did not affect my childhood.


I wanted my grandmother to love me but I didn’t know how long I’d have to act.

I wanted my grandmother to love me but I didn’t know how long I’d have to ask. 

My grandmother wanted to love me but she knew I wouldn’t stay long.


I could not forgive my grandmother because I knew her.

I forgave my grandfather because I never knew him. 

I forgave my grandmother because I never knew her.


My grandfather smoked.

My grandfather drank. 

My grandfather quit.


My father smoked.

My father drank. 

My father quit.


My grandfather had a heart attack.

My fifteen-year-old father was by his side. 

My grandfather’s ship was lodged in its home port, the tear duct of Lake Superior’s great eye.


It was October; the ice was stiffening.

It was October; the shipping season was nearly over. 

It was October; my grandfather’s pockets were full of quarters to pay Charon.


The lake never gives up her dead.

The grandmother never gives up her guard. 

The granddaughter gives up assembling her dead, guarding her truths from her lies.


Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review and has been recently published/is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Waxwing, The Collagist, and The Rumpus. Find more about her projects at or @suburbanprairie.


This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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