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My Summer Ghost


Everything I’m about to tell you is true, except for two things: one, it wasn’t my grandmother (although I am part Cherokee, and I have had many sage grandmothers and great grandmothers.) It was my friend’s full-blood Cherokee great-grandmother, but it fit perfectly. Two, his name is.

“My Summer Ghost”

A ghost spent some time with me this past summer, and he lived in my computer. He knew my name, where I had lived in 1972, where my pain had begun. When he said his dad had been at Fort Sill I froze and waited, feeling a NO and a YES all together, it can’t have been?!

My Cherokee grandmother had warned me of this type of ghost, in her way. She had a saying, something like, “there are three types of friends. Those that are there for a reason. Those that are there for a season. Those that are there forever. Two out of those three will leave you before you’re ready.”

This man—my ghost–had skin brown as the good dark soil you never find in Oklahoma, where the dirt is red. Legend says the dirt is red in Oklahoma due to all the blood that’s been shed there. That is where my pain started, in my home . . . and where his started, too . . . my ghost. He came up on my screen and he said, “I knew you, little girl. I knew you when you were being hurt and started feeling very afraid of home, because I was the little black boy down the street whose father killed a man in our living room. My stepfather raped me throughout my childhood. I’m here to show you the path to climbing out and away.”

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He had dreadlocks and wore a Buffalo Soldier hat his great-grandfather had kept, long stored, he told me, a source of pain that he reclaimed and wore with defiance. He smiled at me lovingly, and with a facial expression that held both pity and understanding. He told me the tears could keep coming if they needed to but they would have to stop sometime if I was going to be strong. If I was going to shed this baggage, this weight I carry around, if I was to be a Queen. He told me he had never spent a lot of time crying–that actually, it was something he rarely if ever had indulged in–but that he got into a lot of trouble, instead, in the years after he escaped from his abuser.

I told him that I always cry when I’m angry.

 Right then, when I said that, there was a long pause, and this was the first and the last time I ever saw my ghost cry. He told me, “I spent a lot of time breaking kneecaps for you, girl.”

 He put his strong hand to his forehead and his chest shook. I cried and touched the screen impulsively and told him I wish we could have helped each other back then, grasped small hands, black and white, and run far and fast across the tarantulas and bleached-white sidewalks, across the dry spiky grass, but to where? The farthest I went was on my yellow metal tricycle, riding slowly, steadily, along the long straight ribbon of concrete. How far can I go. How far can I go.

My ghost went far. He went to prison, eventually . . . for fighting his way out of this pain. Now he works for the poor and in need, around the world. He’s an innovator, a change-maker, raising people up with his strong hands. Spreading love and charity after a lifetime of pain and anguish.

 Whenever, during our computer screen chats, I started repeating self-defeating things, how the things that had happened had turned me into a broken person, and possibly a bad person, too, he’d get up from his chair and sort of hunch his back, slapping his thighs, shaking his head low and fast, eyes closed, singing this kind of crazy scat until I’d shut up. He’d ask, “are you quite done?”

When I’d cry hard about the burdens I carry and the boulder on my shoulder, he’d start to pick up all the furniture in his house, ALL of it–please don’t think I’m exaggerating–until he was this small figure under a catawampus collection of chairs, ottomans, boxes, busts of David, books, halogen lamps, “and let me get this here, too, let me add this, Corbyn, is this enough? What about this here? Wait, I can get one . . . more . . . thing . . . that enough, Baby? That enough? What else you gon’ add, Baby? That enough for you?” Then after I got a goooood long look at how silly and overwhelmed and unnecessarily burdened he looked, he’d stare me down good and hard. A long, quiet stare. And he’d start to put each item down, while never losing eye contact with me. Never losing eye contact. Just silence. Just those beautiful eyes and those wild locks, that black skin, that hat, while I cried with relief and understanding.

For as long as I can remember, as an adult, I felt like if I were asked to paint a self-portrait–the internal kind, how I see myself, not the mirror’s lie–I’d see a well-muscled black man with a snarl and tattoos, one whose fists are clenched and whose face challenges you to just Go Ahead, MUTHUHFUCKER, Try!2pac

That’s who I call on when I need that feeling of invincibility, like none of it ever happened, the red dirt, the years of unpredictable anger and violence, of being afraid of your own parents, of your own home, the feeling of having no place that was safe. And in short time this summer, my ghost became my safety.

A text of “today is going to be a great day for you. You are stronger than what happened. I love you. R.” And that was like a sweet guitar strum in my ear, and my eyes would close and my head tilt with an almost drunken feeling of peace, just with those words. Because my ghost was there. He knew Everything. I could rewrite every hurt with his strong arms around me. I could paint a whole new painting, one where I didn’t hide behind bushes and under beds, where I didn’t cut huge bleeding sections out of the bottoms of my feet where no one would see, but where I could march, add to the red dirt, add to the red dirt.

I sliced these huge bleeding sections off my feet for years, and at night I would have to peel off my blood-soaked socks and throw them away. My mother had to wonder what was happening to all my socks. Periodically, I’d find new replacements–the kind that came in multiples, in a bag–laid on my bed without comment.

And yet there came a day when I wasn’t ready and he wasn’t there. He vanished, and it was if we had never met. All contact ceased. A DVD of a favorite movie I had sent to him came back marked “Undeliverable.” And the crying came back, and it came back harder than ever, because I wasn’t ready, and I thought maybe it was time, finally time for the hospital, that I had created my fantasy healer, someone who could make it all better, and I still don’t know if that’s not true. When I try to contact him now, he responds as if we’ve never met or doesn’t respond at all. He said a stranger is trying to stalk him, and that’s me, but I know because I REMEMBER HIM MORE THAN I REMEMBER ANYTHING ELSE IN MY LIFE. But he turned away from me, and it hurt like a thousand things hurt, it hurt me bigger than big, and I’m not sure if it broke me more than helped me.

That’s the thing about ghosts. They’re damned unreliable.

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A Throat-Clearing Night (for New York Times Motherlode)


(originally appeared in Lisa Belkin’s New York Times “Motherlode” column)

I was 5, I was small, with hair as pale as milk, and I was about to become a graffiti artist. I was in Oklahoma, playing in our tidy, treeless front yard in a bare suburban neighborhood. I could come and go like that, there wasn’t any need for supervision in this place.

I was avoiding the grass on that particular day, because though it was always mowed and edged, it was angry grass, bristly and spiky but nobly drought-resistant, standing stock upright without the courtesy to bend or fold much as you walked on it. It was one of those days that’s so sunny that everything looks as bleached as chalk. I was near the neighbors’ yard, where they had a hedge that formed a small, cool dome that was the perfect size for me to crouch inside. Without much considering, I snapped a piece of a young green branch from that hedge. It hung on with the thin brown skin of itself until my small hands could work it back and forth enough to break it free.

The long walkway to the arched porch entry of our house was as bare as bone, perfect for rubbing wet green designs onto the concrete with the jagged edge of the small broken branch. Spirals, smiling faces, the word “Love,” the only word I could write. There was a bright sharp smell as I kneeled low, the sticky feeling on my fingers, and I remember noticing all of this as I regarded my work with satisfaction. I drew small pointed hearts all around. I did this by carefully making a narrow letter V and then topping it with the outline of a person’s bottom, that’s how I remembered how to do it. But I made capital E’s wrong for the longest time. I gave them so many horizontal lines in the middle they resembled a comb or, at the least, a many-tined fork.

There was a throat-clearing my father would make when he got home from work that meant he was going to have a Bad Night. It was almost imperceptible, but to my ears it was as insistent as that monotonous hoot the television would make when practicing for an emergency, and when he walked from the driveway it was there, and his eyes saw me but didn’t see me. I’m not sure if it was the writing on the front walkway or the frantic scramble I did, saying what I needed to say to try to scamper from his sight and his anger.

My vulnerability and fear brought a kind of red-faced rage forth from him, or maybe I was just the unwitting recipient and had no part in causing it, it was hard to tell. I was as still as a rabbit when it first senses it’s being watched. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know why he was angry, but just that I knew that he was, and that I was first in line, and that the next set of events was as sure and reliable as the heavy roll of a pinball sliding back into its ready spot. It was too late to either mend or escape, and as always I knew that if it had maybe been a non-throat-clearing night, things would have gone much differently. When he came home in a good mood, it was like freedom. Sometimes there would be a trip to 7-11 to get Marathon bars for everyone, or he’d put on the Cream record, or the Janis Joplin one my mom loved so much. He played the stereo loud enough that it shook the walls. When he was cheerful, he wanted all the neighbors to feel his loud, infectious joy. He was grudgingly adored. The type of person people called a “character.”

But this was not a stereo night, and there was nowhere for me to go.

I stayed as still as possible. My father’s face was purple-red, and it vibrated. You could smell this kind of anger he had. He stuttered when he screamed, and repeated words. I felt far away from this place and submitted; I would always submit. When he would spank me, it was a full-body spanking done in rage, and it was full of other things, pulling me to a place and holding my arms back. There was only this strange satisfaction that it had started and, having started, would end.

My mother could be nearby at these times, but would not hold or protect, or even provide comfort later. I remember the thin straight-across of her mouth, and the way her gray eyes seemed colorless to me. The feeling of having no one in your corner, when you are small and the person who holds such terror for you, who throws you and silences you so completely with fury, should be contrasted by one that will see your side and take it sometimes. If your mother, perhaps, would look at you with the soft eyes of an ally, and maybe back up your explanation for things, just sometimes — just once! Just once, to look into that enraged face and say “stop.” Stop.

I didn’t know things were different in our family, but what I did know was to fear evening time and weekends. Turning on the lights made it feel a little better, but the arrival of dusk would often find me skittering under the bed. No matter what other kids said, that wasn’t where the monster was. The monster smells like Coors, and sambuca, and cigarettes. The monster is big and furious and loves you sometimes, holds you in his lap sometimes, teaches you to ride your two-wheeler on those wide treeless streets.

“O.K., now quickly look down, go ahead. Do you see that shadow? That’s the shadow of a big girl riding her bike.” I risked it, for just a moment, darting my eyes to the left and down. There were no training wheels on my purple big-kid’s bike anymore, I could see that in the shadow. I could even see the vinyl streamers hanging limply festive from the handlebars, they were there in the shadow, too. This bike, these wide quiet streets, this sliver of father I could cling to, when it wasn’t a Bad Time.

A dad’s job is to teach you how swim a few strokes in the overly chlorinated neighborhood swimming pool, while your jolly baby brother crawls and bloodies his knees on the surrounding concrete, oblivious, drool and snot from nose to chest. My father’s handlebar mustache would turn up at each end, you could barely see the twinkling smile under the broom of it. Sweetly: “That was all the way to the edge without any help, that was just like a fish, Corbyn Lee.”

But on this day, all I wanted was to escape his view. I felt raw and unpeeled on the front walk, and kept picturing the jagged stick crayon that had started this mess — where was it now? In the after-hurting, I was almost calmed by the lingering hitching sounds that signaled the real crying was over. There’s a relief in the after-hurting, and I already knew about that at the age of 5.

I had a bucket and a scrubber just the way anyone would imagine it, and I remember scrubbing the green markings off the concrete that seemed like hieroglyphs from a happier part of the afternoon. And for every day that there isn’t the throat-clearing, there’s a feeling of ecstatic relief that’s almost like love.

 

 

And then there was this follow-up, for which I have no words and feel sorrow and joy and humility and hope and everything else:

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/help-for-an-abused-family/

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