My mother came to America by boat. She wasn’t really an immigrant, and definitely no refugee. Born to an Air Force serviceman in England, she came to the States at six. It was the 1950s, and England was bombed-out, post-war, rations and wool. But still, the cottage she’d lived in had a name, Thornsbane or something, and there was an occasional nanny who knit and prepared tea and smelled of scents I don’t have the names for. What is camphor? Are rosehips not the whole rose?
I don’t know the America she saw when she landed. It was New England, a place I’ve only recently seen, as foreign to me as the Old England. She’d go back to the UK to live again before coming back to Massachusetts to graduate high school. Eventually, and strangely, she ended up at 21 in the small New Mexican town my father was born in. He was over 14 years older, twice divorced. It is impossible for me to imagine them falling in love–now split for nearly as long as they were married–so instead I put them in a booth, say 1974. The seats are black pleather and there are white candles in thick red globes on a laminate table. They are drinking a lightly yellow beer in mugs and she imagines she is seeing what her life will be. I suppose they had to have been laughing or something else but the image grows fuzzy where I need it to. The point is that she decides to take this life, but then she gets pregnant and that’s not the life she gets.
This is the story of your mom too, probably. Before just the past year or two, I didn’t know anyone who came from homes or communities where people had many options, and some of these people I’ve met recently have mothers who, even in the last quarter of the 20th century, lived intentional lives. It’s weird. I don’t fully get it, what it must do to you as a person to see that every day. How it has shaped you in ways it hasn’t shaped me.
As usual, I am talking about someone else as a way to talk about me. I thought I had outsmarted the trap of the poor town I grew up in, that I’d found books and feminism and couldn’t get pulled down, but I think now the town just moved into me. Part of why I quit writing, as I’ve said, was that nobody seemed to care either way. Of course, I have to see and claim my part in that, but I also understand now that my values were shaped, sneakily, by that place, by that example. Why write, I thought, when you can just be happy?
For the metrics of my town, happiness was firmly rooted in coupledom, in marriage, in children. There’s a picture of me at 16 with three friends at the Boy We Love Jesus So Much We’re Gonna Sing About Him All Week Bible Camp. We are all 15-17 and had started a “music group” that week that mimicked They Might Be Giants. We called ourselves Les Dents Noir. The picture is a fake album cover taken in front of a church van. Within a couple of years, two of us would be mothers, the third just a bit after that. I have to emphasize this is not a judgment. I promise. I swear–one of them may be reading this now. (Hey J!) This is just one picture of any number I could choose with any number of high school friends and tell a similar story.
And the thing is, I was kind of judgmental for awhile. How smart my choices are, I thought. How great that I lived in Prague, poor and lonely, while my friends nursed or packed kindergartners’ lunches. I went to graduate school, I learned and forgot Polish. Look at my modern independence. Look at how I’ve escaped. In Greek drama, this is when the stabbing starts.
My grad school experience was, at best, mixed, and I left with not much desire to write. Moreover, I returned to New Mexico knowing that I would have no writing community, no writer friends, no one to read any work I may create or to discuss with what I read. To be clear–these people exist in New Mexico, but there’s not too many and I didn’t know them. I once had a brief pseudo-relationship with the neighbor of a well-known poet in Santa Fe, but that’s as close as I got to knowing who to turn to in case there was a poetry fire and I had to pull the alarm. (Seriously–how can a poet be this bad at metaphors?)
Where I’m going with this is that I made a calculated choice: go elsewhere and pursue writing options or stay in NM with my boyfriend and try that life. I chose B.
What I am not saying is that I regret that choice. That would mean the erasure of far too much good. But what I am saying is that I wish it hadn’t been either/or. Or that I hadn’t seen it that way. I am saying I worked so hard not to do what my mother had done, I never noticed that I had just updated that narrative for a new century.
Just about one month ago, my mother’s youngest brother was killed in a fairly gruesome car accident. I was on Poetry Mountain and only shared this with a couple of people I’d grown close to. My mother said there was nothing I could do if I returned, and because of various complicated legal issues in his life along with his expressed preference, he would be cremated and there wouldn’t be a funeral. I wasn’t close to him (he’d become a disaffected right-wing agitant), and while I worried for my mother, she insisted I not leave.
Certainly I am selfish for having stayed, but yet I know her well enough to have also heard in her voice Don’t you leave there. We don’t get chances like this.
A couple of weeks later, a small obituary for my uncle, penned by my mother, was published in Texas. It handled gently a troubled man’s life, and then this line: “Danny will join his father in lovely, desolate New Mexico. Someplace where the lonely rail tracks rumble.”
She had once wanted to write. She says she doesn’t regret her family, the way I don’t regret mine, but in both of us there is an imagined other life where someone said You should do this thing you love and are good at and then we do.
If this is a blog mostly about writing, let this be about writing. I write more and more, as often as I can, fitting it into the spaces I once used for companionship or self-care. And yet I gain no traction / nothing seems to be working. Fellowships and prizes have an age maximum, a tradition so sexist and classist I’m shocked it still happens. And yet. Each of these tell me I have no worth. That my voice doesn’t matter. What’s worse is that I listen.
Part of what kept me from writing before was fear, and yet now that’s what keeps me going. I fear the small town inside me unlatching until I am inside it. I fear not becoming my mother so much as I fear not fulfilling what she wanted for herself.
I love bemoaning personal setbacks, but only in private, so I have to ask myself what is the service performed in sharing these thoughts with all four of you. I don’t know that I know. I think at its heart is the desire to yell out into the lovely mass of award-winners and fellows and prize-winners and ask not for what they’ve earned but for a bit of space, room to share and breathe. That has to be earned, certainly, but it also has to be allowed for.
Mostly I am in this desert talking to rocks. They say nothing. Or maybe I am not listening.