Iced tea in hand, I quiet my mind and tune my senses to birdsong and beauty. The morning light accentuates the field grasses, standing tall and bright against the shadowed woods, each seed head waving distinctly. A House Wren tirelessly spills music from his treetop, filling the meadow with song, while a Catbird sings from the shelter of a shrub behind me. Crisp butterflies wave their colors over the grasses, like so many flags outside the United Nations when international relations are going well. The book in my book lies open and unread; I am reading the rich world that lies open before me, unfolding with life in all directions.
In my youth, Fridays were an important day. My dad got paid, grandma made her trip upstate for the weekend, and the cheese man came.
I cannot recall how the cheese man came into our lives, but come he did, slowly and stealthily at first, and then with a dependable frequency that couldn’t be denied.
I vaguely recall his first visit. We had two driveways from which one could enter our property. The driveway that the cheese man chose to use was a pot hole- filled- with- dust and gravel kind of driveway. He was driving a 1961 black Chrysler Saratoga with wide whitewalls and chrome headlights. He drove slowly as not to kick up dust on that hot, dry August day, and out of the corner of her eye as she took clothes off of the line, my mother saw him well before she heard those whitewalls crunching down.
She stopped with my brother’s diapers in one hand and the wooden clothespins in the other. She never took her eyes off the cheese man as she bent down to put the diapers in the basket and the clothespins in their bag.
“Can I help you?” she lightly called from her stance.
The cheese man walked to the back of his car and opened the trunk.
I suppose that it was more curiosity than fear which gave my mom the courage to walk towards the man and his car. A pungent, but not necessarily undesirable, smell wafted the air as she approached.
The cheese man stood alongside the opened trunk and with his hands gestured for her to come closer and peek inside. With the smell now undeniably coming from within, she peered inside.
All sizes and shapes of cheese lined the trunk. The hard cheeses were squares and rectangles wrapped in brown paper, where they lay at the bottom. Softer cheeses wrapped in cloth were on top of them. Balls of cheese cradled in hammock-like rope hung from the top of the trunk’s insides. A metal scale , impaled by a hook joined the roped cheeses, so that when the trunk opened it would be ready for business. Towards the anterior, salamis were tucked away in empty corners.
“I can cut anything you like” he said matter- of- factly.
My mother’s eyes were wide open in wonder. She became transported to the cheese markets of her youth, and she marveled at the compactness and completeness of this store on wheels.
She looked up at the roped balls.
“How much for one of those?”
The cheese man took one down and placed it, rope and all, onto the scale. The scale number said 2.
“Give it to you for three.”
Mom’s eyebrows went up.
“I’ll take it.”
As he handed her the cheese on a rope, she reached into her apron and pulled out a five dollar bill. I knew from listening to my parents that five dollars was half a day’s pay for my father. Why my mother had that large amount of money in her apron I didn’t know, but I knew that my father would be furious that she spent three dollars for cheese on a rope.
The cheese man took the bill from her and put it into a metal box which was also in the trunk. He extracted two dollar bills from it and handed them to my mother.
“I’ll come by every Friday.” And with that, as my mother and I stood along the pot-holed, graveled driveway, she holding a cheese on a rope, and me shading my eyes with my hands from the sun, he closed the trunk, got into his car, and drove away.
I scan the ochre-colored sandy path closely as Paul and I walk beside the canal, he sometimes riding, sometimes pushing his tricycle. I'm intrigued by the houseboats lining the canal. Who lives in them? What are their lives like? I've been fascinated with houseboats ever since having a childhood friend who had lived for a time on a houseboat. The path is lined with pines and other trees I can't identify– the flora here in California is so different from that of the Northeast. There are birds, many species new to me, in these trees, and I have binoculars in my pocket.
The binoculars remain in my pocket, though, and I barely glance at the birds, much as I am drawn to them. I continue to closely watch the path ahead, making sure my active grandson doesn't step in the wrong place anywhere along the path. There's actually surprisingly little dog waste given the tremendous number and fascinating variety of dogs to be seen anywhere one goes around here– from tiny Chihuahuas to towering Great Danes, from a diminutive nine-week-old Shiba Inu that looks like a bright-eyed teddy bear to two lumbering Newfoundlands who look like real bears. The vast majority of dogs here are social and well-behaved, and I'm guessing that the vast majority of dog owners are considerate and responsible about cleaning up.
Apparently not everyone takes advantage of the conveniently placed poop clean-up bag dispensers and attached garbage cans, though. What I'm most concerned about Paul stepping in is human waste. I know from an earlier walk with Paul that there is some along this path, thankfully covered with a little paper, but obviously something to keep my quicksilver grandson from inadvertently running in. I also want to be sure Paul doesn't jump on the navy blue sleeping bag, unzipped and spread out right beside the path, that I'm pretty sure is sheltering a sleeping person. That would be an unwelcome surprise and rude awakening for the sleeper.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I see a movement above me and I look up and see a very small, fairly nondescript, drab-colored bird fly from the pine branches above me as another alights in the same low branches, then immediately disappears! I glance ahead along the path, then tell Paul there's a bird in the tree even though I can't see it. I've been teaching him some basic bird species and he's been quite interested, though he's generally ready to move on pretty quickly. The branches are low and not particularly dense. Where could the bird have gone?
The binoculars still heavy in my pocket, I glance back and forth from Paul to the branches overhead. And then I see it: a beautifully fashioned, perfectly camouflaged, narrow tube-shaped nest with a small opening near the top, hanging from one of the branches, partially obscured by the needles of another branch. It appears to be made of moss, the same color as the surrounding pine needles. I
At that moment Paul spots a rock on the path a little way ahead– round and white with small black speckles, about the size of his fist. Running to it in delight, he picks up the rock, looks at it closely, then adds it to the treasures he's already collected in the compartment on the back of his tricycle, and we continue on our way.
The next day, my last before returning home, I once again take Paul out on his tricycle for a walk along the canal, hoping to look more closely at the hanging moss nest and the birds whose home it is. We don't get any farther than the sleeping bag that's still beside the path, however, because just at that spot, without any warning, Paul's tricycle suddenly collapses and falls apart into three separate pieces! Thankfully he's been walking, not riding the tricycle, so though startled, he's not hurt.
As quickly as I can, which isn't very quick due to my lack of tricycle assembly experience, I reassemble the tricycle, only to have it immediately collapse once more in a heap in the sandy path. All the while Paul is providing shrill two-year-old commentary, and soon the sleeping bag stirs, revealing a sleepy older woman's face. I apologize for disturbing her rest and tell her we'll be on our way as soon as possible. After a short time that seems long, probably to all three of us, I finally get the tricycle precariously assembled and we head home where Nathaniel will do what dads do– repair broken toys.
I never do get back to see the hanging moss nest, but I have a clear enough memory of it and the birds to look them up and identify them as Bushtits– a new species to add to my life list of birds I've identified! I also have memories of a delighted boy holding a round white rock with small black speckles, a tricycle collapsing into pieces on a sandy path beside house boats, and a sleepy older woman patiently watching a baffled young boy trying loudly to grasp what had just happened to his hitherto unquestionably reliable tricycle.
Birding in a city neighborhood with a curious
"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries."
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
What I have learned so far…
How cows make milk.
How dogs became woman's best friend.
How kids tell the truth more often than lies
(We just have to want to hear it).
How families can survive cold nights and empty stomachs
because they have faith in the goodness of life
and the beauty of each other
(and because their mother's taught them how).
How we can live alone or together and still
need to remember to see the apples and not just the orchards.
How becoming a mother is more fraught with more danger
than being a firefighter trapped in a forest fire
how fathers can find grace in scavenged vegetables.
How sometimes looking backwards is more fun
than looking forward, and other times looking backwards
just gives us another chance to try again
(or lets us imagine breathing sultry songs into the microphone
instead of picking up the dirty clothes or paying the bills).
How someone can discover the universe
by picking up a tiny book, one so small it might not be noticed
by anyone else and then the space it took up on the shelf
suddenly expands into light and voice and air
like the equations of time.
How our histories are made from myth as well as
families arguing at the dinner table or laughing out loud
at Granny's funny accent or Auntie's tales of lost love.
How we need to listen to each other
if we ever hope to survive
so we can recite our tales of wonders and lost lovers
and learn something new,
like I imagine two eagles might do looking out at a sun-filled
reservoir on a chilled December morning,
blessing the day.
After months or even lifetimes of doubting the beneficence
of the existence
of Dominus Benedictus
I rejoice this Sunday
feel smell see His goodness
golden green purple blue.
But today I can't comprehend anything Eternal except
If indeed You are good
spawning spring streaming sun soothing souls
please Lord give me one sprig of lilac
from the pastel paradise of this reborning day.
Give me lilac wine potent
drop the purple curtain over
life's losses injuries injustices betrayals.
Give me lilacs Lord in a hundred crystal vases.
Lilacs Lord don't reek of death
like powered hands and polished fingernails
in a shiny mahogany coffin draped with a hundred roses.
Give me lilacs of life soft messages of life
if You love me if You exist
Or is this enenchanted springday soft Mayday no more than
a token message of sympathy?
Promise me God
that this day will be an intimation
of promising flowering grace soon to come
and when I am full-bloomed fruit-filled flowing over,
then lilacs Lord place lilacs Lord
only lilacs on my grave.
I am 45 years old
And it has been 45 days since my last period…
These are my sins:
I drink too much coffee
I cook dinners sans vegetables for the kids
I worry obsessively
I procrastinate on my bills
sometimes in front of my children
I get mad too easy
My house is messy
I am lazy
Oh, and I have a boyfriend whom I delight in
Forgive me God
For all this, God, have you put me into early menopause?
Ready to pounce
Retreating to my covers, my safe place
With laptop, and vino
whilst my children shoot and kill each other on xbox
leave dirty dishes on counter
Want to see no one
Want to break up with my lover
Self-diagnosis of PMDD in June
Premenstrual Dsyphoric Disorder
Gynecologist recommends Prozac
Slightly relieved, but more ashamed
I can’t handle
been on this shit for a month
Still no period
And now my hair is falling out
Going off the drug
Need my hair- more than I need my sanity
Or at least as much
If I am going to go down, I want to look good on the way
Remember this, friends, when you check me into the psych ward
Remember to outfit me sharply on the day of my admittance
No matter what, it is always important to look good
Mom (Avon Lady from the big hair eighties) would back me up on this
Seriously – calling on woman of infinite wisdom
What would you choose?
Would you give up your hair to be less irritable?
I am guessing that I do not have a single friend who would say yes
What is a fair compromise?
Would you joyfully gain 25 pounds to be a better human being?
I am way to vain for that
I forgot, God, to confess this Vanity, surely a grave sin
Would you give up your money for inner peace?
Oh Greed- more ungodliness
Finding a balance between pleasure and pain
Maybe this is why I have the PMDD
Half the month… euphoria
Jokes for my students
Peaceful energy in my chakras
Hugs for my boys
Compassion for myself
Adoration for my boyfriend
Create elaborate plans
Check off tasks on my to-do list
Sing sweet soulful songs
Ovulation- like an ax, strikes
PMDD is back
I drive too fast
Sleep restlessly on couch
Eat chips for dinner
Hold tension in my neck
Relive old heart breaks
Feel pain too intensely- mine and my children’s
Grind teeth in my sleep
Yell at the kids
Flip my oldest son the middle finger behind his back
I’m sorry God- I know you can see this.
So … this – this is the balance I am seeking?
Would really prefer less extremes
Unfair I say
45 days no period. This is crap
45 days and still waiting
Started the second half of my life on Saturday
45 years old
Ready to balance out the second half with the first
Sins and all
Bless me father, I will do my best
Oh and please Lord,
let me keep my hair.
Momma left us alone
to care for ourselves, right
after breakfast. She came back
in the afternoon arms loaded
with bags and boxes.
On the four poster, she laid out
treasures: pink and blue flowered
cotton panties and undershirts,
crisp, swishy petticoats,
red and blue plaid gathered skirts,
pleated skirts, jumpers with white blouses,
full-skirted dresses with Peter Pan collars.
All brand new for back to school.
We never chose a dress or shoe
from a store’s racks and stacks.
We never heard the words:
You can’t try that on here, or
Use the colored dressing room.
We never stood in line waiting
while the salesclerk served
tow-headed children and their Mommas
first. We didn’t see the pickets
parading Freedom Now signs
in front of Woolworth’s, didn’t see
the passers-by shove and push and
spit and yell Nigger!
We waited at home excited
for Momma all flushed and breathless
from carrying her downtown load.
We waited at home anxious
fingers crossed that what she chose
was what we wanted.
She left us home
ignorant of the price paid.
Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you,
This body, loose, young, the body that swung,
The sweaty shiny comfortable skin, the eyes that flashed,
The legs that jumped. Drink this, drink in the body,
This body, that body that came through the day,
Colliding, brushing with other bodies, this body, moving,
Smooth skin against rough cheek, blue silk dress,
Lipstick on the polo shirt, the shorts of a pixie chick,
The torso of a Latino lifeguard, the hands of a spectacled African man,
This body, that body, whose body shivered, shook,
Arms raised to the heavens, shouting its praise,
This body, that body, pulsed to a beat last night--
What body now lifeless lies on the dark red floor,
Sacrificed with the blood of a new covenant
As broad as the arc of a rainbow
In a crowded club in Orlando, the body mashed
From holes that flash, from hells that erupt from
A morning of night, taste this body, taste that meat, eat
The body of the world, no longer in the world.
II. The manuscript is read aloud – twice. We hear it first in the voice of a reader other than the writer, then we hear the words in the voice of the writer. Listen to both readers carefully -- note where a reader hesitates, falters, or stumbles.
III. There are three (3) rounds of response and commentary. During first two (2) rounds, the writer does not participate. The writer listens, takes notes, etc.
The most valuable and effective response we can give to early draft writing (writing in the process of becoming a publishable manuscript) is to be an attentive and sensitive reader. At this stage in the writing process, the writer needs to know and understand how the text affects a reader.
First, read as a reader
A good reader is someone who enters the text fully, emotionally, intellectually and with great sympathy for anyone who has the courage to put words on paper. Good readers notice and record their experience of reading a text without judgment or trying to fix it. When a writers are given a reader’s in-depth experience of a text, then a writer can take that knowledge and use it, or not, as the writer chooses.
Our role is not to be a critic or an editor. A critic is an evaluator and judge whose role is to place value on texts, to serve as a guide to readers. Nor are we editors whose role is to correct, improve or fix a text. We give the gift of being the very best readers of one another’s writing as we can possibly be.
Read without a pen or pencil in hand. Read the complete manuscript (or as much as workshop members have committed to reading) before making any written responses or notations in the margins.
Note Your Reading Experience
Note the strengths of the manuscript and those places in the text (manuscript) where as reader you are moved, surprised, excited, saddened, laughed, etc. Point to language, images, actions, etc that stay with you after reading the text (manuscript).
Also note of the following:
• how the writing moves you, makes you feel, think or experience the world
• where you are drawn in, step into the piece, live in its world
• where you are pushed out of the text and do not stay with its action, characters, etc
• where you have questions or need more information
• the authenticity and honesty of voice and language, especially in use of dialogue
• identification with characters, situations, ideas, etc (be careful to use “I” statements)
• imagery, metaphor if it is present, it need not be
• music of the language: alliteration, assonance, rhyme, meter, etc
• if poetry: impact of appearance of poem on page, line breaks, etc
Help the writer to re-see the text (manuscript). Make suggestions to the writer that would strengthen your reading experience of the text (manuscript).
This is not an editorial reading. Only note grammar or mechanical issues where they interfere with your ability to understand or appreciate the text (manuscript), where you are pushed out, or your reading of the text (manuscript) is disrupted. If you observe a pattern of grammar or mechanical issues, point to 1 or 2 examples, then in your summary describe the pattern you observe. Leave it to the writer to do edits.
Summarize your reading experience. Keep summary brief, 3-5 statements.
Finally, sign your name to your comments. Bring manuscript to workshop and return to writer once in-workshop discussion is completed.
Its worn red seat with the fraying electrical tape catches my clothing in a familiar way
I squint and ponder “today’s specials” on the wall in front of me, as I feel the eyes of those behind me do the same
Should I pretend today?
I cast a serious face towards my cellphone, willing it to announce an email, a text. The phone screams silence.
Perhaps I’ll open my notebook and take out that sterling pen I’ve kept for all these years, my initials worn from use. Maybe words will come, flow, like these tears I feel behind my eyes. Maybe I’ll seep words instead. Maybe.
A waitress approaches. She’s perky, and pretty, and filled with purpose.
“Tea, please. Black. With lemon.”
She doesn’t know me.
I study today’s specials. Clam chowder and beef barley soups. The fisherman’s children most likely dug and gathered them before school this morning.
Tuesday pot roast. All you can eat. My mind wanders to a warm kitchen filled with the odor of roasting onions and beef. Intoxicating smells. I unconsciously lick my lips. Banana cream and blueberry pies. The fisherman’s children would have picked those blueberries, too.
Early bird special: chipped beef on toasted rye.
My tea sits un-sipped.
Yes. I think I’ll pretend that today I am a famous author of the mystery genre. Or perhaps of a fantasy.
I’ll pretend today. Yes. I’ll pretend.
Oh Miles, you stand before us, your grey jacket open
revealing the black skin of your bare chest
shimmering in stage light.
Your pink trumpet you hold at your side
fingernail tint matching your horn.
You wander slowly around the small HALF NOTE stage
looking for, feeling for, just the right place
where the beautiful riff lives.
You close your eyes, your right foot barely tapping
You look at your brothers behind you
your back to us.
You nod at the bass player’s solo
Your foot keeps time with the piano
You lift your horn, look once at us, then off you go
to…oh, we don’t know the way
We can go only where you take us—
Where only you can go –
To a moment so beautiful it hurts
To a pain so deep there is no bottom
To a question: where is love
To a plea: come with me to my loneliness
To a hope: know me
Anna turns right on their favorite country road, driving slowly past elegant Victorian mansions in elite Sewickley, gabled houses in pastel paints, so big they could be boarding schools. "Look at the property!" says Stella Jane."If you got hard up for money while you were living there, you could save yourself by selling half the lot."
"Norman should buy a house," Anna declares. "It's such a good investment. He could do it if he managed his money well."
"It wouldn't be so bad having him home again if he didn't bring that girl's clothes with him. They're everywhere. Under the his bed. In the cellar. They'll have moths. Moths in my house, in our things!" Stella Jane complains. "What's he doing with her?"
Anna and Stella Jane discuss the new/old morality. "It's better for guys," Anna observes. "They find some girl to keep house for them and wait on them like their mothers used to, and then kick the girl out whenever they want."
"Some women aren't playing that game," I venture. "Good for them," says Anna.
My grandmother tells me I'll be playing around with my life in New York when I'm 40, just like I am now.
Stella Jane: When are you going to marry, Susan? Settle down, get yourself a good man. Then you could buy a house and we could give you some of the things around here to make it purty!
Susan: There aren't any good men. And marriage is an institution of slavery.
Stella Jane: Not if you find the right man.
Susan: Like you did?
Stella Jane: Well, now, Frank was just….
Anna: You'll be too old to marry soon. (She married at age 39).
Susan: Don't worry about it.
Anna: She's too selfish to marry, Mom.
Susan: Actually, I might marry in about five years. There's just one person I'd marry, and that's Victor. You know who he is, don't you? Remember?
Anna: Ha! That's not going to be so good for you.
Susan: Oh, I don't know. Victor wants to marry me. We love each other very much. It's just not...well, it's not…
Susan (pleased): Yeah, that's it. You got it.
Stella Jane: Who's Victor?
Anna: You know, mom. He's the one that likes boys. He's the one she moved to New York with.
Stella Jane: Now what would she want to go marrying him for?
Anna: Who knows? She'll marry him and then he'll go off to see his boyfriends and Susie'll go to….(pause)...well, I don't know what Susie'll do.
Neither did I.
A phone call from Stella Jane.
"I might get to New York yet. Have to go see my friend Miss Lillie. She's just the nicest person. Sent me a fruitcake for Christmas. You tasted it, didn't you? We sent her some small things. Some nice hankies Anna had, a change purse and something else—Anna, what was it?—Oh yes, a pretty pink necklace. She didn't write to tell me she got it. I don't know, maybe she thought it was junk. Course I don't write myself. Can't spell the words. I got so I forget nearly everything these days. Have to leave blanks for the words I can't spell, and I almost have nothing wrote on the paper at all."
Yesterday, Anna, Stella Jane & I drove through the South Hills all the way to Library, PA, where I lived until I was 12, when we moved to Mt. Lebanon. The pharmacy was in the same place. Peter's Creek Baptist Church had grown into a complex, with a red, white and blue neon signboard on the corner, fitted with flashing arrows chasing the faithful to the church door. St. Joan of Arc Catholic School was still drilling the fear of the Lord into its politely petrified pupils; a notice on the front lawn announced registration for new students next Tuesday. No point in checking out the library, as the town never bothered to build one.
The Company Store for coal miners, a low yellow brick windowless building, situated itself in the middle of the empty parking lot like the remains of a meal on a dinner plate. The streetcar clacked through the center of the sleepy town, churning over the underpass just as we rumbled under it on our way up the hill to the old neighborhood.
Dormers have been added to most of the simple one-story Cape Cod-style wooden A-frames, including the house of my childhood, 164 Pleasant Street, which wasn't very. A great number of houses were up for sale.
"I'm so tired," said Stella Jane. "My leg hurts. My eye hurts. I have heart problems. It never stops. I might as well die and get it over with."
"Oh, Mom, don't be ridiculous," said Anna. "You can still rest and watch television and I take you to Kaufmann's or Denny's for lunch."
Later, I said to Anna, "So grandma seems to be forgetting more than she was the last time I was home."
"Oh yes. Sometimes we'll get in the car to go to Lizzie's. We'll be driving along and she'll ask where we're going three or four times. Her circulation's not good.
Not enough oxygen to the brain. She'll sit and cry that she can't remember like she used to, but I tell her it's not important. I never could remember anything much. What's to remember except to get up, to eat, to sleep, and maybe the way home. If you can't remember that, you just stay home."
My aunt can't remember to feel and my grandmother can't remember to live. You have to lower your expectations.
I visit Pittsburgh after a seven-month absence. Stella Jane is looking her 86 years. She tires easily and has lost her strength. Her eyes have recessed further into her head, her skin is mottled, and I cannot see any eyelashes. She still looks round, standing at 4'10" and weighing 135, but she doesn't fill her skin. She wears her flesh a couple of sizes too big.
We are driving to the shopping center, as usual, my aunt at the wheel, my grandmother beside her, and I moodily watching the summer sun dust the air out of the back seat window. My grandmother suddenly starts crying, softly.
"Anna," she says. "Who is that in the back seat?"
"That's Susie, Mom," said Anna. "Your granddaughter. Frances' child." It was the gentlest I'd ever heard my Aunt sound.
Yes, Stella Jane, daughter of your daughter, the dead one, the good one, the one who went to heaven because we willed it, she willed it, Mary Frances, my mother, who neither of us can remember because I have been alive again as long as I knew her, because you have been alive long enough for death to become so familiar it loses its bite, and your dead are just misplaced like last year's Christmas presents or the quilt you swear you stored in that specific attic storage bag, or the jar of peach preserves you missed when you went to the cellar to count your stock of put-up foods one winter morning.
A telephone call.
"Hi, grandma, how are you?"
"Fit as a fiddle and ready for love."
"Still hanging in there, huh?" Did I say that?
"The Lord don't want me and the devil ain't ready for me."
"I must say I agree with their decisions."
"I don't have much to talk about. My mind can't hold anything. Watch yourself in New York. I been thinking of coming there to visit. Oh, I got another friend there, in Yonkers. That's Miss Lillie. But I guess I aint gonna get there anytime soon. You behave and don't do anything I wouldn't do."
My dearest grandmother weakens but is still up and about and she and my aunt go driving through country roads past the isolated estates of the Pittsburgh elite at 30 miles per hour, towards shopping malls where they lunch in department store resturaunts without leaving tips. Sometimes Stella Jane steals the silverware, wrapping it in her napkin and slipping it in her beige leather purse, where my aunt discovers it later. Anna buys me underwear and feeds my grandmother too many pills and in between my grandmother's words gapes at the chasm of her approaching death. What will she do without her mother, her constant companion, her fellow traveler, her argument with herself?
But my only other choice was to die.
I was not physically dying. But my spirit was dying. I could feel it fading fast. I was past the stage of unhappy and I was becoming apathetic. For a long time I was angry at the injustices in my marriage. Raging energy was burned through my veins. Then one day I realized, I no longer felt anything.
No sense of hope for the future. No glory in achievements. No joy in raising my three sons. I was not the person I wanted to be. I was not the mother I needed to be. The woman I wanted to be, for my children, was brave and honest, warm and funny. I didn’t feel warm and funny living with Jeff. I felt tight, guarded and defensive all the time.
I was scared of my own apathy, until a small voice in my head whispered, “This is your one life.” “My one life,” I echoed back and repeated as my head hit the pillow that night and again in the shower the next morning, and later while driving home from work. This mantra began to settle into my bones. I thought about this truth, “this really is my only life and I won’t get a do-over.” The words settled into my bones and I knew I was not being my best self anymore; I was incapable of being that self in this marriage and I alone, had to act.
I made the steadfast decision that the only way for me to continue living, was to cut off my right arm and get a divorce. There was much uncertainty in what my future would look like, but ultimately, I would live, would gain my strength back, I would find my way and regain my balance. I embraced my resolve and did not waiver from that day forward. I knew I could manage with one arm, however challenging it would be. I could survive and thrive without my husband. I wanted to live!
My spouse knew that our relationship was in serious disrepair and had been for awhile, but when I said with all finality that I wanted to divorce him, he went into a fury that lasted several weeks. He hated me and fought with me. His concern was over our three young boys. We both loved them very much and we rightly predicted this would be heart-breaking for them. I had thought through different scenarios but still had so many unanswered questions. There would be no guaranteed outcomes. I could not say, one hundred percent, that we would stay in our house or that the boys would stay in the same schools. I had a long list of things I did not know.
What I did know was that I needed to take control of this life that was slipping away from me and divorce was now the only option. Once I made the actual decision, I began to feel empowered. I summoned strength from my bones. I willed my body to support me. I pushed through some hard discussions with Jeff and when he said, “I can’t believe you would do this to the kids,” I without hesitation said, “I am not doing this to the kids, I am doing this for the kids.” And I believed my words, heart and soul as I said them. Despite the challenges that would inevitably come, I was ready to be a strong, graceful and protective mother for my children.
My children needed a mother who would love herself enough to leave a bad situation. I could see that my young boys had strength to carry out their own convictions. Hadn’t they gotten that from me? I needed to be true to myself in order to be true to them. I did not want them to move through adolescence in a home watching their parents belittle each other with biting words over dinner, alternating with evenings of silence. I did not want them to witness me dragging my heavy heart behind me as I begrudgingly engaged in chores or activities. During this time I loved these boys more than I loved myself. I knew I needed to lift myself up for them.
Separating proved to be as difficult as I expected. It was a good thing that I had really prepared my heart and my thoughts for this challenge. A symbolic last ditch effort at counseling further clarified that divorce was the right decision. During the session, my husband flat out stated that he would not change and was unwilling to try. In hindsight I am grateful for his honesty.
During the summer months, I slept on the couch, but at the end of August, I ordered a bed and had it set up in the playroom. I pleaded with my husband to move out. We battled back and forth and he sent me horrible, hateful emails. My gut hurt on the inside. I begged Jeff to be reasonable when we spoke to the kids about our decision to split up. I wanted to deliver the news in a respectful, careful, loving way. He wanted me to do it without him or he threatened to tell the kids it was all my fault- that, “Mommy wants the divorce.” I was worrying quite a bit about this moment.
Jeff came around to my side and eventually, we sat the three guys down and said, “We have something we need to talk to you about. Well, Daddy and I love you all very much. But Daddy and I are not able to live together anymore. We need to separate from each other. It is not anything you did. It is just about us.”
“It’s a divorce?” asked my oldest son who was about to begin eighth grade.
“Well. It’s a separation.”
“I always knew you would get a divorce,” he yelled through tears. One of the twins came over to me and I hugged him. His twin brother, headed right to his father and Jeff embraced him. Devon turned his face into the pillow and cried.
I found my voice and said the words I had rehearsed, “We are always going to be here for you guys. We are always going to love you.”
School started up and the autumn months dragged; Jeff had no plan to leave the house. It was unbearable. I was seeing a gifted core-energy therapist and at her office I would allow myself to feel the overwhelming sense of loss and would unleash a river of tears. After the session, I would get into the car, wipe off my smudged mascara, inhale big breaths and tell myself to be strong, then drive away with thoughts immediately shifting to what I had in the kitchen that could be scrounged up for dinner for the kids. We kept the routines running, except that often Jeff would come home very late, or not come home at all. It was a strain on both of us. His sustained anger was wearing me out. My sleep was suffering; it was hard to go to work.
Abruptly, a couple days before Christmas, Jeff announced he had secured a studio apartment in the city. On New Year’s Eve, three suitcases, a guitar and an amplifier appeared in the foyer. And then they were gone and so was Jeff. That marked the official end of the end.
A few weeks later on a bitter cold Friday night, my three guys and I stepped out the doors of Grand Central Station and headed south down Lex, toward their father’s new apartment. Devon sailed a few feet ahead of us on his skateboard with his backpack slung over his shoulders, and the twins skipped along, excited to spend the weekend with Jeff. I held Scott’s pillow under my arm and as we approached the curb, Nolan grabbed my hand. As Scott started to step off the edge; I lunged forward to reach around his shoulders with my free arm. Catching him, I traipsed with one twin on each arm and my skater boy leading the way across the bustling street. My children were resilient and I realized that I was still intact, after all. The metaphor of losing a limb may just be too strong, perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be a “bad break” that if properly set can heal.
Now, Sugar, she said, you don’t have to make it so difficult or be so intimidated by the color. You own that color, it does not own you, she said, as if one could or would be intimidated by a shiny three-inch tube of creamy scarlet pigment. You hold your mouth like this—pouting—or like this—pursing—or like this—smiling a gargoyle’s smile, lips stretched taut over a line of Chiclet teeth. Personally, she said, I think that a relaxed mouth is a receptive mouth, and wearing red lip lacquer demands a receptive frame of mind. Red is not for the shy ones—and nether is ruby, or crimson, or cherry, she said, so it is important to take ownership of that tube like you mean it. You know that phrase, “Go hard, or go home?” That’s how it is with saturated color—you have to commit.
So, she said, you uncap the gold tube, and check your color—very important, make sure your mood and your mouth are in accord with one another. Harmony is the goal here. Once you are satisfied that the lipstick is the right shade exactly and therefore your friend, you twist the bottom potion to expose the creamy stick—don’t twist too much now, or that lipstick will snap right off and drop on the cleanest thing in the surrounding environment, which will forever tell the tale of you mishandling your lipstick, which is quite a trial. No, just a half inch—no more, I mean it—will do.
Now, she said, as we approach application, a steady hand is imperative, because women with a smear—no, a slash—of crimson across their faces look cheap and disorganized. No, precision is key, so if you have had too much coffee and have the shakes or if you are freezing and have the shivers, adjust yourself accordingly. Let me show you, she said, bending her arm at the elbow and bracing it on the tabletop. See? Steady, solid as Gibraltar’s Rock, not going anywhere but where you exactly want it to go. Begin with your lower lip—decide here, commit, and remember if you are going left to right or right to left, and make sure you do it the exact same way every time, because that is the only way to get really good at it. Personally, I like to work from the outer corner of my lower lip—more pouting—to the central meridian of my mouth, thus covering half a lip at a time. This, she said, makes for more control and precision than a single line of application, especially because lipsticks tend to be somewhat straight of form, and if you have that kind of lips, straight, you know, you look kind of mean. Last thing you want your lipstick to be is uninviting—I mean what is the point? Why bother, if your lips don’t say, “Come hither. Now.”
Once you have lightly pressed your crimson or ruby or scarlet to your lower lip— and we will talk about the critical elements of perfect color selection, blue-red or orange undertones, another time—back up a little from the mirror and make sure you are coloring within the lines. If you’re good, smack those lips together to deposit some of the bottom lip’s crimson on the top lip, giving you a more balanced appearance while warming up to the real thing, additional color deposits on both the bottom and the top lip. Be careful when you smack those lips of yours that you don’t get them spit wet, because your lipstick will not glide—trust me on this—smoothly over a watery surface. In fact, spit repels lipstick, and that is, after all, counterproductive.
Now you have laid the foundation, she said, and you are ready to build upon it. Go big and hard, and push that scarlet spike against those lips—top and bottom, one more time, being very careful, again, to color within the lines. Eventually you’ll get good at this, when you’ve grown up some, perhaps when you are my age.
lives in another place
called Timbuktu. I write her personal
letters on lacy stationery telling
her how her hometown has changed.
Every storefront is occupied. There is a Vietnamese
restaurant next to the newly furbished hotel.
When they lived there, Mom and Dad, they couldn’t
even find a pizza place. Dad had to hang out
in the tractor store to hear some manly banter.
No Lowes, no Home Depot. They did not exist.
No tattoo parlor, nail salon or micro-dermal
piercing palace, puncturing wherever you want.
Would mom have fancied a naval ring?
Would she have ordered pho?
Or would she have put her foot down,
yeah, Mom. Turned her back on
“Try Yoga, first time free.”
Would she have sounded off
to the street corner guru,
asked for Sugar Pebbles at the Whole
Food Store? “Dear Mom”, I write,
“remember Gerty’s Grocery? How we
laughed because it only carried
one brand of beer, soda, soap.”
But we got used to it. No
decisions, no stress.
Mom, Gerty sold out to Taco Bell.
Who is minding the store?
This divine creation
of light separated from darkness,
dry land separated from eternal waters
to test my spirit and
temper my soul.
I need the world.
This bright, shining blue marble
cast against the infinite blackness
to overwhelm my imagination
with its grandeur and
I need the world.
This solid rock
upon which I stand
to anchor my dreams and aspirations.
I need the world.
This vessel of converging waters
to flow life
from rivers to seas
through semen into wombs
out birthing canals.
I need the world.
This pulsing blue-green organism
coursing through with vegetation
and sweet flowing streams
to feed my hunger and quench my thirst.
I need the world.
This living sanctuary
home to creatures
great and small,
wild and tame,
familiar and strange.
I need the world.
This human garden
where both good and evil reside
to cradle my innocence and
nurture my wisdom.
I need the world.
This secure haven
shared with my love who
wipes my tears and salves my wounds
hears my voice, listens to my stories,
laughs loud and long, strokes my hair,
massages my back, tickles my feet,
kisses my lips, arouses my moist vital place.
At my end, I need the world.
This great fertile womb
engorged with transforming juices
to accept these tired bones
from one life all used up
and to create once again.
Whose crap is this? I know, I know;
It hails from somewhere down below
Where mousies prowl and spiders spin
And nary a human dares to go.
But go we did, my boxes to get
In other places each to set.
There must be at least a hundred more;
Keep on, keep on, we’re not done yet!
They fill the rooms and line the halls,
Block the doors and climb the walls
To such a hideous dizzying height;
They threaten those who rise at night.
Down the steps then up we climb,
Time after time after time after time,
Till finally we see bare floor
And one poor mouse that breathes no more.
My kids have tired of seeing what’s hid
In every box, 'neath every lid
“T’is junk!” they cry then flounce away.
They will not help; they will not stay
To see me deal with such a mess
How long it will take is anyone’s guess,
But all this crap I cannot keep,
Boxes to go before I sleep,
Boxes to go before I sleep.
This poem was written during March 12'16 Write Saturday and is published here due to popular demand.
No criticism, suggestion, or questions are directed toward the writer in response to first-draft writing.
Do not respond by recalling a memory or story. If the memory is a strong one, then write the story and share it with workshop writers.
Do not address the writer as you, as if the voice of the speaker, the storyteller, the narrator of the writing is the same person as the one workshop reader/writer; instead, say the narrator or name the characters. This is our practice even when the writing is written in the first person, I, even when the writer tells us it is true or autobiographical.
Do not refer to a character as a real person rather than an imagined character, for example a family member, such as the character my mother, is not the writer’s mother, ie. your mother. She is the mother character.
Do not recall all your thoughts and feelings. Limit your response to one or two aspects of the writing that stood out for you. Leave room for others to comment.
Writing that has newly come from the pen of a writer should be listened to with care. New writing is as fragile and raw as a newborn and should be treated as respectfully, as tenderly.
• Do not make overt or subtle suggestions for change.
• Do not tell one’s own story, ie. This reminds me when I…
• Do not question
• Do not express doubt or disbelief
• Do not describe writing as derivative, overly familiar or clichéd
• Do not express dislike or disinterest in narrator, voice or character
• Do not respond with like unless you point to particular words, phrases, actions, etc.
What is helpful is to listen to the writer, then give back what you remember, what stays with you. Each writer is finding his or her way to voice. It cannot be coerced, and it cannot be given form or shape by anyone else.
--adapted from Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and with Others
Suggestions for responding:
- I remember
- What is strong
- What is powerful
- What is brave
- What stays with me
- What moves me
- What surprises me
Women in scarves bowed in the gloom.
Paint trickles red from the thorny crown
and pierced breast of the man on the cross.
The women's own breasts fall then rise
with the circuit of wooden beads'
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be––
orisons woven through a list of troubles
felt in the back and the calloused knees––
a runaway daughter, a son despised,
a grandchild's leukemia,
or the husband whose pay won't cover rent
drinking it away.
And world-without-end they bow their heads
in sacred gloom, where rising stones
converge in arches groined above––
all that weight held aloft
as if masons' aspired to lift the world
from those upon whom it sits heaviest––
where walls are lined with paintings:
arrow-bristled, flaming martyrs,
Jesus' hand gentle on the woman taken in adultery,
the faithful, rising on rose-rimmed billows,
angel-flanked souls freed of dark lives,
haloed in the ever-after.
The women's voices thrum at "Let Us Pray".
They strike their breasts at the altar boy's bell,
bent in the chill comfort of chant,
mouthing familiar phrases,
nostrils stung by incense,
hands burnish down to skin-smoothed oak
the pew's varnished back
where they lean for support in this two-legged life,
lacking money or love or patience or justice,
whatever they pray for morning and night.
When the priest invokes transubstantiation
with "This is My Body", their bodies,
sore from childwork and housework,
seek solace in the down-cast eyes above red glass candles,
of the Virgin, whose only son died
young–– for compassion, for intercession––
she whose unflinching plaster and paint
witness daily with cool regard
re-enactment of what would turn
any mother's eyes to glass,
any mother's heart to stone,
and seek to emulate her meek acceptance: God's will
to forfeit her only son
on a stony hill
for an unruly and murderous race.
They beseech her for relief
to compacted, calcified spines,
pray for the souls of dead parents, and of babies
unbaptised in limbo, and to forgive
own their failures
to live like Jesus, the saints, and the martyrs.
They try to frame their troubles in this life
as suffering paid out to amend their fallen state
and carve a path to heaven through ritual celebration
of a god into man crucified.
After the priest proclaims,
"Go, you are dismissed." they respond
without thought, "Thanks be to God"
and take hearts lightened by ritual
and submission to mystery
back to the street, the office, the grocery store,
and home for which they are truly thankful
feeling somewhat guided if not at all sure
that prayers that rose from their hearts' tongues
will clear stone arches and be heard.
warriors pour onto the street in beautiful form.
This is their day so they must hurry.
Cares are forgotten; there is no worry.
Spy boys run with flags waving high
do their duty with lots of pride,
chanting loudly Indian ditties
as they wind their way through the city.
Chieftains dressed so fine and neat
with large feather crowns from head to feet.
Satin, silk and beads to suit their style,
one glance of them is worth your while.
Braves line the street dressed so pretty.
Mardi Gras lasts only a day – what a pity!
Primitive beauty at a fleeting glance,
watch as they prepare for the Indian dance.
Tambourines beating savagely all the while,
they sing and dance in war like style.
Bowing, kneeling and leaping in the air,
Chock-a-ma-fi-na sung everywhere.
Little boys eyes open wide
when Mardi Gras Indians walk by.
Holding tight to their mother’s hands,
every one loves the Mardi Gras Indian bands.
Mardi Gras 2016 is February 9. Mardi Gras Indians have a long history in New Orleans and have been a part of Mardi Gras celebrations for generations. My mother, Lucy Francois Hymes, experienced Mardi Indian culture as a child coming of age in New Orleans. A high-light of Mardi Gras for the Hymes family was walking or driving through back-a-town in search of Indians and King Zulu. This was back in the day when neither group was permitted to parade on any downtown streets. This poem captures my mother's memories of Mardi Gras Indians.
--Jan Zlotnik Schmidt, Distinguished Professor of English, SUNY New Paltz
Jennifer "Jen" Roy
Just how did those Mystics do it?
Sacrificing, tortured souls
Eyes pointed heavenward to avoid temptation?
While we mere mortals struggle and yet so easily fall
Our confessions for all to see:
An empty box of Girl Scout Thin Mint™ cookies
There are bistros, and cafès, and much you can do.
You can climb up a mountain, swim in a lake,
See an eagle, an egret, a bear and a snake.
The Sincere Pumpkin Patch you will find here,
And leaves in the autumn are beyond compare
We have writers and actors and artists galore
But one thing we don’t have is a General Store.
You can’t get a curtain, a teapot, a blind,
And umbrellas and beach balls you never will find.
No pocketbook, wallet, no change purse, no hat,
No nightgown, no bathrobe, no baseball, no bat,
Not a high chair, a beach chair, a bench or a stool,
Not a towel, a sheet, colored thread on a spool.
No sticker, no sweater, no glove for the snow,
No bedspread, no pillow, no trumpet to blow.
Not a fabric, a scissors, a pattern for fitting,
A doghouse, a bird house, or needles for knitting.
No cloth for your table, no bra and no stocking,
No curtain rod, bath mat, nor chair made for rocking,
If you’re troubled, we have sixty therapists here,
But you can’t buy a clothespin in New Paltz—nowhere.
One blue plate
One thin moon
One long night
Two bare feet
One bare light
Three green chairs
One shut door
One white pill
One thin moon
like sea grass giving way to sand.
The fine hairs on my cheek dip in the wind of his easy breath.
My hand remembers the warm, solid back of him,
as sure as sunrise and sliced apples.
My heart laughs at all the years I struggled
to keep my bricks and sheetrock strong
so no mortar crumbled,
so need could not escape,
nor dependence enter.
My soul learned that surrender
is as simple as sand.
We had youth.
We had bodies as supple as saplings.
The choir called us and we sang.
The red earth held us and we touched the morning stars.
The velvet night hugged us close
and we rested in soft oblivion.
We had magic.
We had youth.
We had bodies that flowed like water.
The trees shadowed us while we danced.
The sun spangled the dew on our hair.
The ocean offered us its bounty
and we were fed.
We had magic.
We had youth.
We had bodies of bone and tendon
We had magic.
Every Fluted Glass
every fluted glass
hoisted in joyful knowledge
luxury means no old people
questions regarding senility
topics using vernacular words
xlosic yeasty zestful
Above the Cove
Above the cove
Battered by shifting winds,
Clouds change faces,
Divert the sun's
Flickering off wave-tops like the
Glass shards of smashed bottles.
Jigged for flounder and tautaug,
Kill without remorse––
Lancing puff-ball blowfish
Mothers' egg-filled bellies––
Nascent life left to wriggle
On the pier, to dry in the sun.
Poles are sunk into shallows where
Quahauggers tie their boats, where
Razor-clams, mussels, and blue crabs flee
Seagulls in the boats' shadows.
Terra firma slides out of sight
Under clear waves the sea pulses–– a
Ventricle to earth's heart-rhythm
Where giving and feeding, water
Extracts from the drowned boy his
Yang, his years of expectation, and his en-
Barbara Martin brought her best in the world, passed down through the generations, pound cake to our book-making on June 10, 2012. In response to popular demand, she is sharing the recipe with the wVw community. It is indeed good eats!
1 lb butter
3 cups sugar
4 cups flour
1 teas vanilla extract
1 teas lemon extract(OR almond OR rum depending on what your taste is or if you want to experiment. I use either lemon or rum)
1/2 teas baking powder (If using sweet butter, add 1/2 teas salt.)
1/2 cup milk
Cream butter and sugar really well. Take as much time with this as you can. Add vanilla and lemon extract. mix well. Now add, alternately, two eggs for each cup of flour. (Sifting flour twice will give a lighter cake.) For last cup of flour, add milk. Mix well, but do not over beat. Batter should be smooth. Pour into a tube pan. Place in a COLD oven then set oven to 350 degrees. Cake should be done in one hour or more depending on your oven. Cake is done when tooth pick in cake comes out clean. Then welcome to cholesterol heaven!! Enjoy!
Barbara left us great stories and the a recipe for the best pund cake in the world. Try it! You'll love her cake as much as WVW writers loved Barbara.
My green fluids retreat. I have
loved and nurtured. I have known
drought and cold. I survived
storms and flaming summer heat. Extremes
made my growing season rich.
Life happened, my roots grew, secured
their tendrils deep in delta
stories and poetic rhythms
of black and unknown bards.
Words my mother
planted like seeds.
My green fluids retreat, what remains
essence of essence adorned in royal
colors: glorious gold, radiant red, outrageous
orange. I am grand. I am vibrant.
I am brilliant. My fruit
Is swollen and ripe.
This is the introduction that I wrote for an unpublished anthology that I edited with by Pat Schneider, Director Emeritus, Amherst Writers and Artists. All That I Remember: Black and White Women Remember Race Before the Birmingham Bus Boycott are the stories of women who recall race lived intimately, yet separate.
I am posting this because renewed interest in the relationships of black and white women as a result of Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help. Even in this Obama era in which some pat themselves on the back and proclaim we are now post-racial. It is race that causes us to slow down, become a traffic jam of gawkers as we stare from behind our safety glass determined, yet hopeful, not to witness the pain and suffering we cause when we collide.
I remember 1955 as a world of school and home. I turned eight years old only weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. I remember third grade, Miss Woods, the brown weatherboards of McDonough #32, the asphalt playground and the deadly merry-go-round where my classmates and I learned the physics of centrifugal force as five older boys ran alongside and pushed the iron frame with all their might: our lessons marked with skinned knees, scraped palms and bumps to the head.
I remember a classroom with blond wooden desks and chairs. The first row was snug against Miss Woods’ desk, while the last row of chairs scraped against the bulletin board causing the construction paper edging to sag. Above our heads and out of reach of curious fingers, Miss Woods thumb-tacked our successes, emblazoned with 100’s in the two-inch header space above our chunky, innocent letters.
I remember 1728 Hendee Avenue, the white house with red trim, the two-bedroom miracle my parents bought on Daddy’s GI bill. I shared a bedroom with two younger sisters. At bedtime, Mama entertained us with the adventures of Bre’r Rabbit and Bre’r Bear. We giggled at her dramatic recitation of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “De Party.” Just before she flicked the light switch, she knelt beside our beds, showed us how to clasp our hands and pray the Lord would keep us through the night.
In the morning, Mama fed us hot oatmeal in her bright yellow kitchen. When I stepped outside 1728, I walked into a vibrant world, richly black. Friday night fish fry’s honky-tonked into Saturday mornings and raised enough money to make the next month’s mortgage payment. Saturdays, we watched Momma “do” heads and unwrap row after row of tight, shiny coils from the metal prongs of curling irons. Sunday mornings, girls in frilly sherbert-colored dresses, and boys in dark pants and white shirts, each family loaded into its own car and drove to Sunday school or mass. I remember a neighborhood where Mamas stayed home with babies, while Daddys went off to work as longshoremen or mailmen or shipbuilders. That was Truman Park, four square blocks of post-World War II working class, black suburbia.
What I don’t remember are those other folks, the white people. We saw them as gray apparitions on our black and white TV, we saw them as we drove through their neighborhoods on our way to church or to visit cousins, we saw them masked and sequined riding Mardi Gras floats. I knew about them from stories, from gossip, from bits and pieces of information I gathered when I eavesdropped on Mama’s conversations with her sisters and friends. Sometimes Mama talked about the lady she worked for when she was a teenager. Most often, she chased us from the room when the conversation turned to white folks and their business.
Between the overheard conversations and being chased away when grown folks talked, I came to understand that my aunts worked in the homes of white families. My Aunt Lillian lived much of her adult life in another woman’s kitchen, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. She was there for all their gatherings, every birthday, every anniversary, every graduation. She ironed the white cotton handkerchiefs before every funeral, then washed them clean of tears and grief. Her knowledge of that family was so intimate she knew what they wanted and needed before they did.
A strange intimacy existed between black and white women in segregated America. A strangeness passed down generation-to-generation, from the “peculiar institution” through the strange career of Jim Crow and made manifest by strange fruit hangin’ in the poplar trees. It is a strangeness that estranges us from one another. Strange as though our history baffles us, as though we cannot recall honest words to tell our stories.
Many American women warily eyed each other from opposite sides of the ironing board. The smoldering heat scorched both feminism and womanism. Black women swiftly learned that, although feminists traced their activism to the abolitionist and civil rights movements, we were not sisters. So, sisters did their own womanist thing, while some feminists marched for equal rights with confidence knowing that a black woman was home caring for her children. This anthology is neither a feminist or a womanist tract, or the saga of domestics and their ladies. It is an occasion for us all to hang brave banners on clotheslines.
I want to know the truth behind the strangeness. I am no longer a child. I am fifty years past the time when I needed to be protected from life’s realities. Not unlike the child who hid at the foot of Mama’s bed to eavesdrop on end-of-the-day phone conversations, I still want to know, to understand the secrets, what happened when women left their homes and communities for work or school or shopping or medical treatment in the world of the other. I want finally to hear the stories about white folks business. I want them straight on, in broad full daylight with every corner illuminated. I want to hear the stories in black and white, like the black and white of old celluloid movies whose projected light on living-room-wall size theater screens illuminated sharply defined places and all the shadows in between.
Pat Schneider made the shadows stark when I heard her read in a writing workshop. She wrote about what she called the Missouri Compromise, her personal experience of making a faustian choice. As a young woman, she had to choose between a church-sponsored college scholarship, her path out of poverty, and being a friend and mentor to a black child when she was told never to bring that child to services again. Her choice left her spirit torn and pained, just as the historical compromise set the stage for a civil war whose wounds have yet to heal. Pat’s piece was my first time hearing white pain associated with race, about something being broken in a white person because they could not live fully human in a racially divided society.
Pat and I talked about how many stories there must be of women, black and white, who lived race before 1955. We wanted stories from all across the country north and south, east and west. We wanted to capture them all from domestic workers and their ladies to activists like Rosa Parks. We decided to grit our teeth and accept the politically incorrect stories as well. It was a politically incorrect time and women hurt one another in both conscious and unconscious ways. Even so, they were there for one another, helping one another through life’s hard times. Often they cried over the same losses and rejoiced over the same victories, but couldn’t/wouldn’t eat with the other at the same table.
We speculated that these women had not told their stories, much like the World War II veterans who kept hidden from family and friends what it was like in battle. This was a generation who wanted to put the past behind them, didn’t believe their lives constituted history in any case. I am a baby-boomer, the tell-it-all, let it all hang-out generation. I believe the personal is political. I believe that unless we know our history we are doomed to repeat it. I believe that stories can help heal, make us whole.
The conversation across race created by this anthology is long overdue and one that will soon be lost to time. It is a conversation that might have happened if women had trusted one another, believed in one another as fully human beings.
What I have learned in reading the manuscripts is that it is not an easy conversation. What I have read sometimes made me so angry, I wanted to quit this work. At other times, I wanted to quit because I couldn’t stand the sadness and pain. Sometimes Pat and I howled with laughter at the absurdities unconsciously, unknowingly revealed by sincere writers. I learned that having a heart in the right place means little if its contents are unexamined.
Despite my personal longings, misgivings and inhibitions, these first-hand stories of how it was to live race and be a woman need to be told, so I continued to read. Pat and I read over three hundred manuscripts. The first to arrive, as a result of an ad in Poets and Writers, were overwhelmingly submissions by white women. Many of the stories were lovingly told memories of black women who cared for and protected, sometimes from their own parents, these women as children. As a child I remember my aunts boarding busses in the dim morning light to ride to the homes of those children and I must confess until I read these stories I never thought about them.
In my world, my cousins, left behind, were the focus of attention. I never considered that my aunts, or any of those women in their white uniforms, might love those children, so I was surprised by the depth and intensity of feeling portrayed. I gained a new respect for the superwomen who had the capacity to love, care for and protect children at both ends of the bus line. By the time I’d done reading, I was angry because so many of the writers abandoned and forgot their “black mothers” as soon as they came of age, went off to college, got married. I can’t comprehend how a beloved mother figure is relegated to memory’s trash heap until an ad in a writers’ journal once again makes her useful. Is that love? Is that what racism does to love?
We spread our net wider, encouraged word of mouth and contacted organizations such as Cave Canem, national retreat and workshop for African American poets. Then we heard from the women, and daughters of the women, who rode those morning busses. Their stories are rarely about love for their little tow-headed charges. They write about the caprice and vindictiveness of their employers. Their daughters were taught that they were never to do this work and that was love. As we placed these stories side-by-side, as if in intimate conversation, the complexity of the combined narrative grew and the questions multiplied in number. What I learned is that the knot that is racism isn’t easily untied.
Our wider net brought us more black writers and a diversity of stories, by black and white writers, about how race was lived before December 1, 1955. We received stories and poems about travel, segregation, employment, friendship, education, and neighborhood and community. Pat and I chose stories that rubbed, for one or both of us, the wound of racism raw and forced us to feel its sting. We wanted honesty. We wanted immediacy of experience. We wanted to feel as though we were seated at a woman’s kitchen table as she poured sweet iced-tea or strong black coffee, shared laughter and tears with a circle of friends made stronger by being there through life’s trial and tribulations. These writers, because of segregation and in spite it, inhabited the same kitchens; we just wanted them to sit down and talk.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, not the first black person to do so, but the one who helped set all those feet in motion walking and marching up freedom’s road. Much has changed in American society since December 10, 1955. The American color palette has become more varied and rich. This is now a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. Pat and I don’t want these stories to be lost in the cacophony.