Friday, May 13, 2011

Her absence

I've been in a fog, heart aching, frozen with grief. I made curried cauliflower soup today, but a recipe I posted a few weeks ago. (It's still delicious!) So in an effort to divert my attention from my grief and to try to write--just write--I did one of my freewriting exercises. Open any book to any page, find any sentence and write something that ends in that sentence. Here it is as it erupted from my brain in one unedited spew.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, p. 6.

“Our mother died when I was two, so I never felt her absence.”

“I don’t believe in you,” she said. “Never have, never will.” She was a beautiful girl, 15 years old, hair the color of the maple tree in the front yard of my childhood home. The last time I saw that tree ablaze with color it was six months before she was born. I was her age when she was born, a child myself at 15. But for her defiant attitude and her lanky built—with the wobbly legs of a young filly—she didn’t look much like me. Yet her hair was unmistakably the same color as Billy’s, a color to this day I’ve never seen on another human being. She was my child and his child, even if she refused to believe it. I didn’t tell my papa I was pregnant, but I had been puking every morning for weeks and he figured it out. He screamed and yelled, smacked me upside the head, and called me the devil’s own whore. Papa was a Pentecostal preacher. I was used to seeing him roiled into a lather, calling down God’s vengeance, and making people go down with the mere touch of his hand. But this time it was more than a touch of his hand. One punch of his work-gnarled fist sent me to the floor. My younger brother cowered in the corner for he had felt the wrath of my father’s fist as well. Papa dragged me to the shed and padlocked the door. For two days I sat there in darkness, begging him to let me out, pleading for forgiveness. It was to no avail. After two days, he dragged me out and pushed me into the back seat of a beat-up old station wagon. Uncle Frank was driving and Aunt Corinne was beside him in the front seat. Aunt Corinne handed me a handkerchief saying, “Now child, quit your sniveling. You’re going with us and that’s all there is to it.” Uncle Frank was quiet, thoughtful man and Aunt Corinne was a matter-of-fact woman, not cruel, just not much on sentimentality. I delivered that little red-haired girl in the back room of Aunt Corinne and Uncle Frank’s house. Aunt Corinne called a midwife to come in when my labor pains started. The midwife bundled the baby in a blanket and let me hold her for a little while before she took the baby from my arms and bound up my breasts. For five days I could hear my baby cry in another part of the house and my entire body ached for her. On the fifth day they put me on a bus with a ticket for Cleveland and the address of a boarding house. Years and years passed but not a day went by that I didn’t think about my baby girl. There was not a word from anyone in my family. It was as if I simply didn’t exist, none of them existed, and I had never seen the maple tree in our front yard. Until last month. My Uncle Frank tracked me down and sent me a letter. He said Corinne had died last year and Annabelle—they named her Annabelle—was acting up something terrible. He loved her like his own child but was at his wit’s end and feared he would lose her. So in desperation he reached out to me, thinking maybe I could connect with her, maybe step in and fill that place in her heart that seemed unreachable. I still ached for her. When I saw her face, her hair, her long legs, and felt that fire in her eyes, I wanted to do something. But what? I didn’t know how to be a mother. I had never learned. All I knew about parenting was the harshness of my father. My own mother died giving birth to my brother. Our mother died when I was two, so I never felt her absence.

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