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A Frack in the Family

“American Gasland”

“Tell me what you think about this,” said my mother inquisitively and with an increasing rise in pitch, during one of our daily phone check-ins. These calls cover a myriad of topics but the consistent themes are spirituality, health, politics, and family news and updates. Her tone was one saved for new, wild ideas. It’s a tone I recall when she’s scheming, but with an undertone of cynicism. In my head, I try to guess the topic before she introduces it. Is she going to tell me about something going on with one of my sisters? Or perhaps she was inspired by her latest muse to travel to a foreign land in search of awakening? It could be a business proposition like when she convinced us we should invest in NanoTowels. Instead of investing, both of my sisters, my mother, and I bought a pack of these microfiber towels and lost ourselves in deep house cleaning while comparing feelings of euphoria attained by moving through the house with this magical, non-chemical dirt eraser. “I had no idea how filthy my walls were!” “Have you ever seen your windows and mirrors look so clean,” my mom squealed with delight. These cleaning revelations continued for three weeks, until the novelty wore off and the house began to accumulate dirt again.


“I got a call from a man telling me I’m an heir to property in Ohio and that I should call him back. He used my grandmother’s name so I think it might be legit.” Hackles up, I wondered who this predator was, trying to take advantage of my sweet, little mother. Sometimes I question her faith in online promotions and too-good-to-be-true offers. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t admit the rousing excitement in my belly at the thought of my mother owning land!

LAND! This is what we talk about on every third call. Nothing is certain. Everything is impermanent. Land, though. Land would allow our family, scattered all over the country, to create community together. The last time we all lived in the same place was in the early 1990’s.

Packed into the two-story, Long Island home — my mom, two older sisters, niece, two nephews, and a family dog — we navigated the world of single motherhood together until we got so sick of each other, we dispersed like seeds in the wind to different parts of the United States to propagate a new life. My mother, the last to disperse, would realize working tirelessly to keep up a house she no longer needed didn’t make sense and she’d venture West herself. This fantasy of all living closer on a shared plot of land relies on collective memory loss of how difficult living with family can be.

A few days passed before I learned that this man was calling from a drilling company and wanted to pay her out for permission to frack on this land our ancestors seemingly once owned. I heard the hesitation and disappointment in her voice and decided to turn it around by suggesting we claim the land for our own, finally build that communal healing center on it and turn it into a public political statement against fracking, complete with a giant banner for all in the Smith Township of Belmont, Ohio (pop. 4,510) to see. For two days, I day dreamed and schemed how this unexpected windfall would be our ticket to creating the future we allude to on almost every one of our calls.

“Well, it’s legit,” she said, but her underwhelming tone didn’t suggest celebration. “Apparently, I partially own the gas and electric rights on a piece of family land in Ohio and they want to pay me to release those rights so that they can frack.” I swallowed the lump in my throat, slowly and painfully, as I hesitatingly watched our healing center plans evaporate and the reality of this unfortunate paradox reveal itself.

“What are you going to do,” I asked, even though I already knew the answer. “I love this earth, Cara! How could I possibly get paid to cause her harm?!” I can’t argue this, except for that as she ages, without a nest egg or retirement fund, and as I race the clock to become financially able to support us both, I find myself questioning her anyway.

At 73, Mom has worked as a massage therapist for over 30 years, a career she pursued in order to support her three daughters — two of them newly teenage moms. While she’s left without retirement to fall back on, she’s strong and healthy and manages on a modest income that allows her more down time than ever. However, her daughters worry she’s one unexpected health crisis or rental eviction away from poverty, as is the majority of our aging population.

While I know she’s healthy, her inadequate medicaid benefits leave me worried about her untreated kidney disease. “I don’t have kidney disease, Cara. The doctors don’t know what they are talking about.” This is a point of contention in our relationship. “Hey, Mom, have you scheduled a doctor’s appointment yet,” I’ll ask after she nonchalantly mentions her tongue going numb for a week. “Oh, Cara, it’s probably a food allergy.” I haven’t decided if it’s a blessing or a curse that she refuses to get symptoms checked regularly while her daughter struggles tirelessly with a case of cyberchondria, for both of us. Also true is that my mom is a bad ass. She takes incredible care of her health and has an immense trust that’s been cultivated from many years of soul searching and spiritual practice.

Rice Drilling, LLC offered my mother a payout for half ownership of seven acres of land, allegedly shared with her only “living” relative — Cousin Susan. Cousin Susan, however, died at the age of 15, according to “Hey, mom, Cousin Susan is dead. She died at 15.” “Huh? I spoke to Uncle Paul, her father after Grandpa died and he never mentioned his daughter dying. I met her last when I was 18 and she was 13. Uncle Paul struggled with Parkinson’s. Maybe he wasn’t all there?” Down the rabbit hole I’ve gone, to uncover the missing family story that my mother never learned before all her known living relatives were gone. Now you can add family ancestry as one of the ongoing hot topics covered on our calls.

The land deed belonged to Abner Wilkinson and Margaret Porterfield, both born in 1843 — parents to seven children. Abner and Margaret’s daughter, Myrtle Iva Daniel, married Benjamin Franklin Daniel and brought my Grandfather into the world — Frederick Gaylord Daniel. I never met him, as he died six years before I was born. I’m haunted still by the story of my mother being out to dinner with family on Christmas Eve and beginning to experience a pain in her chest. She would later learn that her father suffered a heart attack and died that night, forever altering the cadence of Christmas festivities.

Widowed and mostly bedridden, my Grandmother — Margaret Daniel — lived with us in the Long Island home until she died when I was eight. this was about the same time my mother left my father and tried to figure out how to support her kids after a lifetime of being a housewife. She was just a little younger than I am now when she was blasted out of her cage with the words of Betty Friedan, unknowingly embarking on a journey of becoming the wise matriarch she is today.

Navigating a sea of census records, gravesite photos, and other random hints, we are piecing together how we got here and who brought us here. What layers are hidden under the shale rock that holds the promise of a quick oil profit — layers under layers that led to this illumination of origin, identity, and ideology.

“Mom, have you heard from the frackers?” “Not in a while,” she replies after a long pause. “I don’t even remember the guy’s name.” “It’s Mr. Larkin,” I say, just in case she changes her mind…