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would-be memoirist writes less-well than she should

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childhood memoir

For Amy, With Love and Squalor


Ruby was walking her five-year-old son, Cash, home, and we were keeping them company on the journey. I was pulling the kids in the trailer, but peddling so slowly that my bike was wobbling to maintain equilibrium. I was in happy conversation with Ruby; she’s an artist and a like-minded soul in this suburban enclave.

Children often point and smile when they see me riding around town. If I’m in a good mood, I grin back and hold my arm up high like a salute to the sky. If I’m feeling grumpy, I’m just annoyed that anyone thinks it’s unusual or worthy of remark to see a flower-bedecked, rainbow-striped retro cruiser pulling a trailer full of children down the side of a busy street.

And oh, this challenging winter and spring we’ve had . . . I can’t endure the struggle anymore! Day after day of glittering sunshine, crisp mild breezes, and skies so clear you can glimpse the purple snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the distance, between the strip malls and rows of redwoods. Such hardship. Such complain.

I keep waiting for my teen daughter to announce that she hates me and the jangly sort of lifestyle that has formed around us in these lean times, or at least to be embarrassed by our shabby home and lack of car. It’s actually been sort of disconcerting, as she seems to not care at all. Maybe it’s because of the circle of support and friendship we have around us. We never find ourselves stranded without a ride if we need one, for example.

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So this afternoon, on this fine sparkling day, Ruby’s son asked, in the guileless way of the kindergartner: “Why don’t you have a car?”

“Because they’re expensive to own and operate, and we decided we couldn’t really afford it if we wanted to stay where we’re living.”

“No one really does that,” Cash said, in his lisp that’s an artifact of his toddler days, so recently passed. “No one doesn’t have a car.”

He paused, and Ruby had the grace to avoid filling the silence with embarrassed, polite excusing and correcting. “It’s actually kind of weird,” he said after some thought.

My children–possibly in a precocious desire not to hurt my feelings, which upon reflection gives me great parental satisfaction–don’t ever say anything like that; they’d censor the word “weird” from their commentary as naturally as we censor “stupid” from ours. I even press them sometimes, gently trying to goad them into confessing the frustrations and embarrassments that sometimes come with being a “poor” family. We review what we do have instead of a car: electronics we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, a biggish house instead of a small apartment, a yard where we can grow vegetables and swing from fruit trees.

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When I was growing up, it was forever in the most polite corners of suburbia, worlds of genteel middle class-itude, where no one leaves toys in the front yard, paints their homes controversial colors, or parks their cars on the street. (And I never knew curbs symbolized a certain affluence until I was an adult and lived in neighborhoods where my parents would mutter, “no curbs,” with some distaste.) I wasn’t even allowed to tack posters to my bedroom walls, which were always painted “Navajo White”–a blandly popular neutral–in an effort to maximize resale value. There was the ticking of a clock in the living room, its carpet ever striated with vacuum cleaner markings; you could hear it in the silence like a metronome.

For a few years while I was a teenager we lived in a leafy suburb of metro New York, on the so-called “Gold Coast” that borders Long Island Sound. I made a friend there, Amy Hendrix (no mean feat when you’re an outspoken, acne-riddled wearer of grandpa’s overcoat and unflattering vintage sheath dresses,) who was also a self-identified writer and social outcast. I remember the first time I went to her house. It was one of those experiences that, looking back, showed me what life’s potential held, and it wasn’t all painted in Navajo White and at a decibel that wouldn’t be heard by the neighbors.

They had a small artful sign decoupaged to their front door, made of letters cut from magazines: “criminals are not as intelligent as other people.” Amy explained that her sister thought it both wise and useful as a burglary deterrent. The parents let her glue it above the doorknob! On the front door! Inside, they had a giant black-and-white photograph over the mantle. It was a picture of the older daughter, who was possessed of the most phenomenal head of hair I’ve ever seen: platinum ringlets, wild and long, dancing around and above her head, down to the dip of her lower back. This picture was of her, clearly topless but discreetly posed from just below her clavicle up to that balletic face and hair that had its own life and will.

The only other art in the living room was a framed album cover, and walls and walls of bookshelves filled so that some had to be laid on top of the others. I couldn’t remember whether the album was of the Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, perhaps? But since Skyping with Amy, I’ve learned it  that it was Bob Dylan. And couch-matching was of no concern.

In the dining room, they had painted the walls a deep bordello rose pink, and hung dozens of faded old portraits in dark frames, mostly of somber-looking men and women, looking dolefully at the camera. “Wow, are these all relatives?”

My friend and her mother made eye contact and snorted knowingly. Apparently they had bought the whole lot of framed photos –which were, of course, of complete and utter strangers!–at a yard sale, the same yard sale where they had bought this rather wild paint color. “See? We ran out. They only had one container.” The bordello pink ended three-quarters of the way around the room with some halfhearted W- and M-zigzag swipes, before giving over to the unattractive wallpaper they’d been attempting to cover.

I’d never seen any family make such carefree aesthetic choices. We’d lived all over the country during the course of my childhood; I had attended five elementary schools and two junior high schools in areas as diverse as Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire. Yet still, my exposure had been limited to the sorts of families (“corporate transients,” my parents called them, our familiars,) who lived the sorts of lives we did, families where there were two cars, tidy garages, well-kept lawns, and tastefully-appointed homes. Families who moved often, as one does in the military, when promotions or new career opportunities arose, leaving the houses easy to empty, scrub down, and stage for sale as we kids stared out the back windows of station wagons awaiting the next application of Navajo White.

So, I hadn’t met any artists, until then.

I hadn’t met anyone who was bucking tradition, or flying in the face of convention. When I met this family I felt this strong “YES,” feeling inside me; it made me feel whole and thrilled and gave me a deeper sense of belonging than I ever remember having felt.

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One thing I’ve noticed since we, as a family, moved out of our tidy suburban enclave and “downsized” to a shabbier existence in line with our new-found financial straits: we are meeting and bonding with more artists, eccentrics, and cheerful outcasts. There is this feeling like we’re pioneers in a new sort of Wild West. Bartering is common, urban homesteading is a survival mechanism, and looking and acting “right” for the neighbors never enters the picture. Mostly, the neighbors are “weirdos,” too: underemployed engineers creating bike trailer modifications and popping up their welding masks to say hi, people giving over more time to their art than to their accounting ledgers, folks learning to monetize their creative impulses because that’s all we really have right now.

So today, walking alongside one of my dearest friends, I listened to her son’s un-coached commentary. He spoke ingenuously and without hostile judgment. Just this: “not having a car is weird.”

“Yes, but I think it’s a good weird, don’t you?”

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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I Am Crumbly All Over


I’m forty-freaking-four years old as I write this in the spring of 2014. And NO, I’m not surprised by that. The years didn’t “fly by,” I don’t still “feel like a teenager,” I don’t “wonder how I got this old,” and I roll my eyes when people say, “I just don’t know where all the time went.” I allow myself to feel flattered when I’m carded for alcohol, and my pat response is, “I’ve been legal to drink since before you were born, young cashier-friend,” because they are almost all in their early twenties, at least at Trader Joe’s, where I get my fancy two- to three-buck Chuck. Once, at Grocery Outlet, a slightly older woman carded me. I quizzed her as I sometimes will, do I seem under twenty-one to you? Really? At times I think it’s because of my nose piercing and penchant for dying my hair blue or pink, or affinity for glitter-covered accessories. So as she considered my question, I was looking down, fumbling through my wallet, searching for my I.D., and when I looked up, we made strong and steady eye contact. (I’m good at that, I think it’s important.) It was then that she said, “oh. Oh. Now I see it. It’s in your eyes. I can see the life you’ve lived.”

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I remember every cycle ’round the sun. There are whole epochs I’d just as soon forget, but no such luck. I do what I can to look better out of sheer vanity, not to stop the passage of time. I use the oil-cleansing method, keep my brows plucked, and treat/moisturize with some pretty-damn-potent AHAs (picture me dressed like Walter and Jesse in full hazard gear while I pour from flacon to beaker.)  I buy the medical grade goooood shit you can’t get in stores, so don’t even ask, it’s like super serious and stuff. And sure, I soften my profile photos to flatter my visage. I’ll do it for you; I’ve got apps and I’m not afraid to use ’em.

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And of course during all this silliness, I’m charged with the raising of the first of my hunnert-summat babies, one of the most blessedly gorgeous teens I’ve ever lain eyes upon, who does not seem to be suffering through any sort of awkward stage, that lucky little sumbitch, my tawny balladeer Rainer, who is built like a Barbie who mated with a fairy and who also has the personality of a poetic, dreamy, musical drama geek who loves watching science fiction TV with her dad and reading, and who cares little for make-up and artifice, and she’s watching my every move like I’m supposed to be teaching her what it means to be a woman. No! Just no, because my high school memories (I attended the infamous Northport High School in Long Island at the time of the murder with the boulder in the center of town that was spray-painted “SATIN RULES!” and shopped at the–NOT JOKING Walt Whitman Mall) are fraught with a face so awfully, oozily, bumpily textured with acne I slathered eighties-era orangepink foundation from stem to stern and held my head down, long curtain of blond hair to cover, combat boots and black coat threatening anyone to say ONE THING, JUST ONE THING. I left after eleventh grade because none of us could take it anymore. Here is Rainer. Can you stand it?

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But in real life, I don’t mind my crinkly smile lines, or as my youngest kids say, the way I look “crumbly all over.” I don’t mind my swinging boobs and “imperfect” butt and legs, the ridges that have shown up in my fingernails, etc. I DO mind the molars I’ve lost and cannot afford to replace, and if $6 or $7K extra just shows up in my lap (HAH), I CANNOT GUARANTEE I won’t run to get implants for the holes they’ve left that, when I smile widely, make me look like I did a dance with meth at some point. (Double Breaking Bad reference, go me!). But never, ever, any plastic surgery, even if millions came flying through my front door.

Molly says, “I’ll be old like you someday.” I say, “YES! Yes, you will be. And I’m not even that old. But I remember having everything feel and look soft and new and perfect. But that will change, Love, that will change. You will change, and each experience will etch itself on you. Have great experiences. Build your old woman.”

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photo credits of two above images In Her Image Photography

And then sometimes I sing to her one of my favorite Michelle Shocked songs, “When I grow up I want to be an old woman . . . when I grow up I want to be an old woman . . . oh, an old, old, old, old, old, old, old, an old WOMAN. Then I think I’m gonna find myself an old man . . . then I think I’m gonna marry myself that old man . . . an old, an old, an old, an old, a really old man. We’re gonna have a hundred and twenty babies! A hundred and five, ten, fifteen, twenty babies. Uh huh, that’s what I said a hundred and twenty babies. We’ll raise ’em on tiger’s milk and green bananas . . . mangoes and coconuts and watermelon . . . we’re gonna give ’em that watermelon when they starts yellin’. Here’s what they’ll yell [then I imitate the harmonica solo.] In the summer we’ll sit in a field and watch the sun melt . . . in the winter we’ll sit by a fire and watch the moon freeze . . . me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies. Me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies.”

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And one of the sexiest things about my husband is the way his eyes crinkle with smile lines when I truly amuse or please him (not so easy!) And the gray that shows in his beard, and how I get to be there for each new one that appears. And the other thing is knowing that long after those hundred and twenty babies finally leave our banana patch, I’ll be walking down to the end with that skinny fella, “dreaming of the pleasures I’m gonna have watching your hairline recede my vain darlin’ . . . watching your hair and clouds and stars, I’m rocking away in a sleeping car . . . ”

Ahhhh, yes. I don’t mind growing old, because it means I get to do it with dang ol’ Larry Joe Hightower, Junior. The man I married with our wedding song the realistic and thus, incredibly romantic “Old College Try,” by the Mountain Goats. “But I will walk down to the end, with you . . . if you will come all the way down with me.” And when he dies, I’mma do the crappy pappy dance on his grave while I swig xx moonshine from a bottle in my tall boots and petticoat. I’ll cackle, “he finally GONE, goldurnit, YEEHAW!” And I’ll kick the dirt and spit. “See ya down in hell, darlin’! Save a spot for me baby!”

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. . . and thank you for making it possible for me to write for you!

Woolgathering

Oh, Just Damn It All, I Have Photos Now (and the hurt is less and more)


http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/memories-of-a-fathers-rage/

Dedicated with gratitude and deepest affection to my mentor and friend, the redoubtable Ms. Lisa Belkin

I was five, 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.

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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 a many-tined fork.

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There was a throat-clearing my father, David, would make when he got home from his job in sales 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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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 five.
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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.

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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/

Lessons From an Abandoned Lot


(previously published on shareable.net)

Today, my kids–ages 11, 4, and 3–are playing in the abandoned lot again. They call it “Nature Center.”  I am sitting on the cracked concrete foundation, looking at a patch of peeling vinyl flooring that must have been someone’s kitchen long ago.  There are many such lots around our town, rectangular plots of wilderness where foreclosed houses have been torn down if they didn’t merit their extensive repairs. Others are left undeveloped when the builders ran out of money; sometimes there is an RV parked onsite with a person living in it, and maybe there are some sawhorses and “caution” tape standing sentry over some weeds and a postponed vision.

We walked by this abandoned lot many times, day after day, and I never really noticed it. I think I took note when the “lot for sale” sign came down after awhile, but it was just a patch of weeds to me, and nothing more. We were always on our way somewhere—towing the wagon to the library or the café, or to do our marketing and come home. I never saw anything worth stopping for, and it was only after many requests that I finally reneged and started pulling the wagon onto the concrete pad, and reconciling myself to this being our destination after all. And it’s here where today my children have found the following treasures: a putty knife, the spokes of an office chair base–wheels intact, the frayed remnants of what must have once been a rope swing, and a roll of what looks to me like roofing paper.

They’re building their own structure, using these and other treasures to support the igloo-like walls.  They’ve dug out a special muddy patch alongside it for their “bug visitors.” It’s surprising, when you crawl low and peer inside their fort, how big it is, how cozy and sturdy. They’ve been working on it and adding to it for a month or two now, and the grass and weeds are now growing thickly over the domed roof. The roots are knitting the structure together, and it seems stronger that way.

The official and sanctioned playground is so close we can see it in the distance, but they will always reject it in favor of Nature Center. I try to lay low when we’re here; my services are not needed. I’m only around to do treasure triage, and I reject sharp metal things and glass whiskey bottles. When we’re at the park, they are constantly checking in with me and demanding my participation. “Watch me go down the slide,” asked of me endless times, until I’m smiling through gritted teeth. And then there are the swings, every lazy parent’s curse. Teaching your kid how to pump themselves back and forth means freedom. But here at this lot, I’m an awkward interloper. I’ve been experimenting with walking up the block and back into our house, coming out to rejoin them after a half hour or so. They hardly look up and rarely notice me, or that I was gone at all.

The last time we visited, they found that what they thought was merely a wall of ivy vines was actually concealing a part of what might have been a barn or a shed of sorts. This led to frenzied spelunking, vine-swinging, and the triumphant finding of various trophies: a flashlight, a broken toy, some planks of wood. Eventually, they began work on  the creation of a satellite fort adjacent to the core igloo.

I love how irrelevant I am here. When we leave, they’ve always managed to get so deeply dirty, infinitely more so than the controlled pleasures of the sand play area at the park leave them. There is a stubborn ring of grime around each nail bed that resists all scrubbing, and it smells like earth.

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