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...]

All I Needed to Know I Learned from the Phonebook

Sing in me, O Muse: That like Navin R. Johnson—the “I was born a poor black child” character played by Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk—I might cry aloud: “The new phonebook is here! The new phonebook is here!”

Time, of course, to cue the requisite twenty-something hipster joke:

What is a phonebook?

I have been a longtime phonebook reader, from way back when I first began to read—a reflection of either the value or detriment of a childhood marked by lots of free time and/or boredom.

With a hometown of only about 10,000, the phonebook was tiny, perhaps six by nine inches, neatly divided between the white residential pages and the yellow pages in the back. This was before the practice of including government listings in blue pages in the middle, but I do remember the standard instructions that applied to types of phone calls that existed back then: party lines (my aunt who lived on an isolated cotton plantation had one), operator-assisted calls, and, most mysteriously, station-to-station calls, which conjured up—for me at least—the idea of connecting to other worlds. [Read more...]

The Narratives We Need, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Recently I sang Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with the Seattle Symphony. In his adaptation of The Requiem, Britten juxtaposes Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the Latin mass. The male soloists sing Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young,” the story of Abraham and Isaac, right up to the angel and the ram. But in Owen’s poem, Abraham kills Isaac, “and half the seed of Europe one by one.”

Turning an ancient story on its head, using a corrupted Old Testament story to represent the terror of the world wars, is horror at an elemental level. The depth of this horror shows how much our stories are knit into our bones; ripping a story apart rends us in two. How much then, must these stories be making us whole?

I believe in being intentional. But I wonder at our desire to make our own decisions about what these formational stories should be—to suppose our individual sensibilities might do better than centuries of a more collective wisdom—instead of holding ourselves accountable to discerning the wisdom in the stories that make us up. [Read more...]

The Narratives We Need, Part 1

“Tell me a story,” my son has started to say after reading his bedtime books. The first time he made the request, I looked at him as I don’t do often enough, seeing the soft cheeks and hands already changing so fast for his three years, blue eyes looking at me with trust more complete than I could understand anymore. I looked at him with awe, awe for who he was, that he was, that somehow I had been given such a gift without deserving, and such responsibility.

“Tell me a story…” The first time he asked I was charmed; a moment later I felt a flash of panic.

The stories of childhood sink deep, said Kim Todd. “Each word falls like a stone to the muck at the bottom of the mind, unimpeded by currents of distraction or critical distinctions.”  These are the stories that will inform our lives, help us write the narratives of our lives, frame our experience, give us direction for grief. [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...]


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