—Over the Rhine
This is a story about beauty, about living in the ruins of something you could never name, but which came to you like an inheritance, like skin or hair or freckles, unbidden, immovable. My hair was a tangle of red from the moment I was born, and with that came everything else.
I was born into a circuit, into a grid of roads that stretched from eastern Indiana to western Illinois. You could live anywhere in the square of Route 30, Sauk Trail, Harlem and 394 and not realize how fenced in you were. The south suburbs of Chicago were a fence, a locked door, a vast overhang of muddled ambitions that fooled me, my siblings, and my parents to think that we could leave whenever we wanted.
My father served drinks and sold weed to keep occupied, to blur the sharp edges of boredom and restlessness that had followed him his whole life. And my mother just tried to move along, tried to do what she could with what lingered in the back of her mind—a dead father, a mother who disappeared when she was ten, her first husband’s thick red fists.
I have always understood my parents as tragic characters in some kind of Greek play, my father playing the discarded outlaw, my mother playing the mythmaker, the secret keeper, her rage the silent, terrifying pulse beneath the movements of our daily life.
And I have always seen their marriage as an attempt to escape their pasts and start somewhere new. In the early years, they bought a small house in rural Indiana and moved us out of the suburbs into a house flanked by wild rhubarb and a wide, quiet creek. Back then, my mother planted hollyhocks along our backyard shed, kept house, her rage not yet surfaced, her hands trying soft braids in my hair.
My father’s restlessness never did keep quiet. He stayed up late at night watching old westerns, and applied for another job back in the suburbs. My mother wept as we drove away from the hollyhocks. Her hands would lose that gentleness, and we would spend the next ten years watching everything fall apart.
This is still a story about beauty. It is about me trying to live in the midst of my parents’ failing marriage, in a land with an ethos of fatalism, in a house where it was common for both my parents to be gone at night, both of them at separate bars, my father drinking Scotch and chocolate martinis, my mother accepting Heinekens from the man who would eventually take my father’s side of the bed, his thick red fists pounding against the walls.
It is a story about beauty because, somehow, something kept pulling me through. Right now, I can only call it beauty. It was God, I know, but it was also language, the pull of good books and poetry, my childhood journal filled with descriptions of sunsets, broken glass, my parents’ wedding rings left on their nightstands, the bands a dull, somber silver.
It is a story about beauty because, as I see it now, my parents were less tragic than I imagined them to be when I was in high school, angry and terrified at the rate of our family’s decline, my own ambitions for college, and for getting out of my mother’s house, pushing me through my days.
It is a story about beauty because what I see now is that the desire for it was there all along: My father setting the table night after night, meat and potatoes served on white Corelle plates (the kind I would receive at my own wedding). His face to the backdoor as the sun set low, his hand a tight, sad grip on my shoulder. My mother snatching seeds off the neighbor’s dying flowers, her flower pots filled with stolen seedlings, the hollyhock seeds kept safe in an envelope, waiting for the right time to grow.
It is a story about beauty because, in all of it, we looked for care and comfort. And in our desperation, in all the ways my parents made us children repeat their own difficult childhoods, there was the desire for each of us not be free from each other, but to each other, free to love each other without fear, and without holding back.
We inherited loss, but we also inherited hope, and that is what makes our story, as I keep tracing it, more comedy than tragedy, more beginning than end.
My red hair comes to me from my father, and my love of words comes from my mother, who took us to the library almost every day as children. She still has all my childhood books on her bookshelf. Those pages hold more memories of good than I ever thought we would see.