Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird and Me

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings

—Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Sympathy”

 

I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was thirteen. I discovered the book through an interview with Fiona Apple, one of the many female singer-songwriters whose mournful lyrics poured through my boom box speakers while I slogged my way through the kickboxing routine that, according to Seventeen, would slim my hips.

Thirteen was a difficult year; I was overweight, dorky, sarcastic, and sensitive. I spent my Friday nights eating Tombstone pizza and writing Tolkien fan fiction. And it was the last year my parents, whose marriage darkened our house, would live together under the same roof.

And what Angelou’s work did in my life, in that year, was phenomenal. [Read more...]

Walking Toward Forgiveness

Outside our trailer park, a set of railroad tracks ran from east to west, dividing us from the police station that sat half a mile down the road. When you drove over the tracks, and felt the car pull itself over the split asphalt, it seemed like you were being locked in or released, depending on which way you were driving.

I used to walk along the tracks at dusk, singing and talking to myself, the fields stretching westward behind me as the sun sank behind the Walgreens. I practiced lines for my high school plays; I imagined what it would be like to walk with whichever boy at school I liked at the time. I tried to keep myself occupied as long as I could, tried to fill my mind with anything besides the dull dread that I knew would be waiting for me once I got back home.

What is poignant about this scene is that it is one of the few memories I have where the sensory detail is so vivid—I have bits of images, movements, but it is hard to place whole memories. I know that so much of what happened has been buried deep within me, and when something surfaces, I have to try to catch as much as I can.

What I remember, mostly, is walking: walking to the curb to meet the police officer before my mother’s boyfriend knew I had called; walking my mother to her bed with her lips against my ear, drunk and sorry and heaving sobs so big that I almost lost my grip on her shoulder. Walking in the fiery shafts of light that cut across the tracks, my voice carrying over the cornfields: But it wouldn’t be make believe / if you believed in me.

[Read more...]

Writing My Mother’s Icon

Blessed Santa Barbara, / Your story is written in the sky, / With paper and holy water.

December 4 marked the feast day of St. Barbara. An early martyr, St. Barbara announced her faith to her pagan father by having three windows—a sign of the Trinity—cut into a wall of her private bath. It is said that the torches St. Barbara’s father used to torture her would extinguish themselves before they could be pressed against her skin.

My mother, also named Barbara, spent her summers cleaning the rooms of my grandfather’s motel; memories of the task still make her shudder. My grandfather refused to wash sheets or towels, and was either too drunk or angry for my mother to ask for a clean washrag.

“I cannot stand dirt,” she says, filling her sink with soapy water, reaching for the spoon I used to spoon sugar into her coffee. Her cigarette rests on the sink’s aluminum edge, its ash hovering over the sudsy water, which she will use to wash the spoon and the rest of the day’s dishes. It is a better spot for the cigarette than the counter by the stove, which, she has mentioned, is now miraculously free of grease stains.

“Baby oil! A little bit just rubs the grease away,” she exclaims, somehow forgetting how flammable baby oil is, how easily it could set her small kitchen ablaze, the file cabinet holding her life’s paperwork sidled next to the stove, the first thing to go should the oil spark.

[Read more...]

Honor Thy Mother

It came to me one quiet afternoon, a couple weeks after we were home from the hospital, my newborn son asleep on my chest, the flicker of memory sharp and quick: I see my mother’s mouth wagging, furious, the garbage can full to overflowing, my brother’s task left undone.

“Are you stupid? Is that it?” she screams, stepping toward my brother, who can’t be more than eleven, his mouth torn open by sobs, the light passing through the windows flat, gray, engulfing. “Answer me!”

I step in front of her, hot with fear and rage, and everything goes blank.

When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I was about to begin another series of careful negotiations; the lines I had drawn between myself and my parents would have to be crossed and redrawn, possibly many times over.

What I did not know was how hard parenthood would be on my memory, how the bits and pieces of what I remember would hurl themselves at me with such raw, shocking force.

I did not realize how becoming a mother would turn me into a child, or at least, return me to my childhood, my own mouth torn open in recollection’s rush and grief.

As a writer, my subject is my family and personal history. I spent most of high school writing short stories that were really just veiled nonfiction, the narrators always teenagers who watched their parents self-destruct. When I began writing nonfiction, my essays were dotted with words like “codependent” and “emotional trigger,” phrases that my mother strung around her like a rosary, a self-help litany of protection against what she couldn’t face about herself.

As I wrote more, the focus became clearer, and my parents began becoming more themselves on the page, less psychological study or sensational stereotype, more fragile and demanding and dangerous.

That is how my parents are in real life, too—as they get older, their wounds and trespasses seem to multiply, and it can be a daily fight to interpret their intentions, their capacity for both impotence and causing hurt.

[Read more...]

The Mystery Inside Me

For the past nine months, I feel like I’ve been at a standstill. A place in which I have no words, nothing to describe what is happening to me, and in me.

In six weeks, I am due to give birth to my first child, a son, and although I have had flashes of deep joy and extreme fear (often occurring in the same day), what has marked my life as an expectant mother the most is this sense of complete, undeniable uncertainty. For the first time in my life, I have no idea what to expect; I have no game plan, no hook of events upon which to hang doubts and anticipations.

All I know is that this little boy, whose feet twist into my ribs even as I write, is coming.

Labels have always been a source of comfort for me. As a child, I collected the flimsy certificates that teachers handed out at the end of the school year, the ones that said Top Achiever, Super Star, Best in the Class. When I moved onto my college campus, I introduced myself to classmates with a vigorous wave and the following words: “Hi, my name is Allison, and I want to be a high school teacher.” [Read more...]


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X