Every so often someone will ask you: what’s the first thing you can remember from your childhood? Here is what I see in my mind: my mother’s lit cigarette balanced on the edge of the kitchen table, the ashes growing longer and longer, and me waiting for them to finally spill to the floor. This was a peculiar habit of Mom’s, leaving her cigarettes in odd places. Despite my dad buying stacks of ashtrays and putting them all over the house, there were still little brown and yellow burn marks everywhere: the kitchen counter, the coffee table, the ping-pong table in the basement, even the edge of the bathtub. He would try to scrub them out or repair them, with little success. He would scold her then, but with no real anger, just frustration. It was a dangerous thing to do, she knew it, always apologized profusely and sincerely, and never changed.

The memory is fleshed out by other images, hazier as the years pass. The yellow-and-white fleck of the Formica. My legs kicking back and forth while I sat in the chair, feet not touching the floor yet; my shoes, Red Ball Jets. My brown lunch sack on the counter with “MARK” written in big red marker letters. My mother, holding my baby brother Michael in one arm, talking on the wall phone with the long, long curly cord. The wooden sign above the kitchen door that read, “The Millers.” My dad passing by in his dark blue jumpsuit, smelling like oil and metal, and him rustling my hair, although I can never picture his face. Perhaps it is because I was watching the ashes so intently, fascinated.

We Millers grew from a family of four to a family of six a few years later with the arrival of twins, Melissa and Melinda. My memories are more distinct from this time, cut with a gloomy anxiety and loneliness. My dad – this time I can see his face, tired – telling Michael and I that “the girls came too soon,” and they would be staying at the hospital for some time, and for us to pray for them. These were the years before many premature infants were saved; little was done other than to wait, and pray. My Aunt Ruth came to stay with us, and she was the one to get us up for school, make the breakfasts, and the lunch bags that read “MARK” and “MIKEY.” My dad seemed to only pass through the house to change clothes; he was either at Rick’s Standard at his job as a mechanic, or at the hospital. I don’t remember seeing my mother at all. If you ask Michael now what his first memory is, it is of he and I at this time, sitting together at the kitchen table eating peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches that I made for us.

After what seemed to be a very, very long time the girls were allowed to come home from the hospital. Aunt Ruth spent three days scrubbing down every surface of our house with bleach water. I noticed her frowning and scrubbing extra hard on one of the burn marks. When my dad pulled up in the car, the second we heard the crunch on the gravel we ran to meet it. My mom was sitting in the passenger seat holding one of the babies, smiling wide at us, waving her cigarette from the window. When my dad went around to open the door for her, I saw her place the cigarette on the dashboard of the car, and could not help but love her for it.

Michael and I loved our baby sisters, but at the same time they seemed so…not Miller. My mother and dad and my brother and I all pretty much looked like each other: dark hair, ruddy complexion, sturdy. The girls remained slight and fragile-looking, with fine blonde hair, deeply-set blue eyes, and as pale as it would be possible for anyone to be. Angels, or aliens, or some combination of the two. The twins seemed utterly content with each other’s company, to the point of exclusion. They never really made any friends at school, never really interacted with me or Michael or Dad much, just Mom.

Miller Time rolled on. Dogs and cats and fish and gerbils were brought home, lived, and died. Homework at the kitchen table, holiday dinners, the scratchy plaid couch finally succumbing to overuse, a car trip to Florida. Michael’s baseball games, Barbie dolls on the bathroom floor, the fall leaves that would blow inside the kitchen door. I left for college, then Michael. Rick’s Standard closed and Dad got a Senior Mechanic job over at the Chevy dealership in Carroll, about 40 minutes away. The girls developed a crush on the singer Barry Manilow, started a fan club for him, and briefly considered changing their names to “Mandy and Mindy Miller-Manilow.”

My mother stoically went through breast cancer treatment, insisting that Michael and I not be told because it would “disrupt our studies.” She didn’t die of it; she died from a brain hemorrhage a year later, on the new couch. There wasn’t any predicting it. We could not have gotten there in time. There wasn’t anything that would have changed the outcome. I repeated these sentences to myself in the air, 35,000 feet up, coming home.

The last thing I remember about my family, when we changed from six to five, was the cab dropping me off at the funeral home. My two sisters stood huddled together in identical charcoal grey dresses, weeping and smoking. From a distance they looked like ashes, trembling, ready to fall.