- Starting Out
THIS IS A STORY about belonging. This is a story shaped by my companionship with my dog, Catfish. This is a story about a need to rescue, a story seeking words to remedy voicelessness, a story of mothers and children. It is the story of how addiction betrays and drains us and how we keep on loving, about the terror of letting go. It is a story about how we might become lost, the miraculousness of not becoming lost. By the end of this telling, I have become a grandmother with a little girl living in my first house. We are beginning. There are new dogs and Catfish is a memory that still fills me with solace and longing. If there is a heaven, I hope to walk there with him again like we walked all over this country together.
There are so many places where this story could begin, so many highways. Let’s start on I-10, head from Tucson to Alamogordo. That’s what I did when I finished my MFA at the University of Arizona in the ’90s, with all the things that belonged to my twelve-year-old daughter and I packed in a container on top of the car and in the trunk, lodged around crates containing our beloved cats, the black cat and the calico, Boo and Gettie. Everything we owned except for a few larger things my brother had hauled for us a month earlier, to store until we were ready. We leave a couch, our beds. I am optimistic about being able to refurnish. The plan is to stop in Alamogordo and then get on I-20 to head for Mississippi because there are some things I want to find out.
When I get to Alamogordo, they upgrade the U-Haul for free and I regret what I abandoned to save money and space but I am moving forward as I look back. I am a person who wants to belong but I also know how much I need to learn to let go. When my daughter and I pick up the U-Haul, we have to tie boxes and chairs to the walls so they don’t rattle around too much in all that empty space. We nestle kitty crates back there for Boo and Gettie. We keep the air conditioning up high and the window cracked behind us. We tow my Mitsubishi behind. All up the mountains, through Cloudcroft and on down through Hobbs and through barren West Texas, all through the green of East Texas and Louisiana, I worry about getting in a tight spot and having to back up, which will mean I have to unhook the car and hook it back up. After we rest in Jackson, where I was born but my family never lived, we’ll go to the house in Brookhaven where Daddy was born and talk to his mother sitting on that porch with the magnolia blossoms and leaves falling around us. We’ll go visit my mother’s sisters in Summit. I’ll find out about my mother. I’ll find out about my grandmother’s sister, Lavelle, who had been institutionalized in the State Mental Hospital for most of her life. I want the stories of the women who came before me. Gathering them is the plan.
I set out on the road wanting to discover who shot my mother when she was seventeen, shot her in the head and took so much of her story away in that moment. All my life I had been given shards of the truth and lies and misrememberings and I believe if I have answers to what happened in this singular moment, it will bring some wholeness. I want to understand the what and why of the secrets. Then she and I might be free of something. I might know how to protect my own daughter and my younger brothers from the insidious workings of those secrets. That moment in my mother’s life took so much of her power away. I have come to believe a mother’s power might transform both daughters and sons, and that power comes from finding a narrative of truth, finding a pattern for those shards that even allows for what might forever be missing.
We have almost made it out of Texas when my daughter says, “Mom, it’s not your mother’s lost childhood you are looking for, it’s your own.” Looking at the highway rolling under that U-Haul with that giant steering wheel in my hands, I realize I have been talking about where I lived when, trying to remember the order of memory. I realize the puzzle contains shards of my own memories and that the wholeness I seek is a sense of home. I imagine getting somewhere and writing from some solitary place, some room of my own in Mississippi, but my transience isn’t yet over. Finding ways to make enough money to live for me will be a departure from writing. People I love will start making choices that break my heart to the point where I cannot find my voice.
We cross state lines into Mississippi when I become unable to judge distance. Instead of halting at stoplights, I keep finding myself in the midst of intersections. We are so close to where we were headed, to the apartment just north of Jackson, but we have to stop for the night. In the morning I realize there is no way out of the parking lot except backing up or unhooking and re-latching the tow dolly. A man walks over to us, gets in the U-Haul and starts grinding everything toward a jackknife until my daughter and I holler at him and he quits. I manage the unhitching process and get us on the road again. We only have around 60 more miles to go.
In the city of my birth, my daughter will commit her life to drugs. In time, I will stop begging for help, will need to do something when I feel helpless besides rescue animals. One day she will head out for the Northwest and be gone for a long time. As a surprise she will leave one final cat in our house on Fortification Street in Jackson. There are four survivors in the house and then that note and another kitten in a room I hoped she’d love, but my daughter has gone out the window again. This time, she’s gone all the way to Olympia, Washington where she will hide in a dorm while her older friends attend college classes. I will start sending food and not money most of the time. We will have been in Mississippi about four years when she goes to Washington. The note she leaves with the kitten says simply, “I know you will give her a good home” but I take the kitten to a vet known as a great cat fancier and expert. He even has a radio show dedicated to call-in cat questions. I place the calico in the hands of a welcoming receptionist who promises he will be all right. I turn and walk straight out that door. For me, he is one too many. Soon I rent another U-Haul and head to Hattiesburg to begin working on my doctorate. I want to be able to write again.
So this is the context of the story then. I wanted to belong somewhere but I kept walking into hurdles and having proving myself. After my doctorate, I lived in Taylor, Mississippi while holding a three-year instructorship at Ole Miss. I spent a year as a visiting professor at James Madison University, a year freelance-teaching creative writing in California while my partner, Brian, worked in Oakland. I taught for a year in Mississippi Valley State and lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, then worked as an instructor for a year at Clemson. And then I found the right place, the tenure track job in Orlando teaching at the University of Central Florida. Every single one of these places except Greenwood I had my daughter come back to me, and we tried to find help. I wanted to belong somewhere but I kept moving as I’d done all of my life.
All during these years I kept trying to help my daughter, to find help for my daughter. My two youngest baby brothers went in and out of prison, their troubles also drug related. In time, I started wanting to return to New Mexico, to go back to places where I lived, feeling like the whole state was home. I was searching for my mama’s story, for my own story, for ways to help the young ones, but in all of this I was mostly restless trying to find home. I am telling this story from so many places, trying to understand what having lived there means. I want each place to mean something.
When I left the Southwest for Mississippi, I wanted to listen to my grandmother, daddy’s mama, telling stories on the porch, but she was so paranoid when I asked questions that I stopped. I wanted to find out about my mother. She lived for 55 more years after someone tried to murder her, 55 years longer than anyone had believed was possible. While working on this book, I lost her to cancer and out of everything I found out, I only wish I could talk to her over coffee, on the phone or sitting on that couch again, about anything no matter how trivial, just hear her voice.
This is mainly a story about grief and there is no straight line to telling it but I am gathering the pieces, all the slivers and shards that I can. I am making something of them.
2. Fort Pierce: Seashells
WHEN YOU DISCOVER your lungs are filled with nodules that might be inoperable cancer, you hear your voice traveling out near the ocean, gently calling the dog. You are not worried about the approach of children, his biting, an angry parent on the dog beach having him put to sleep to prove that point, only some animals are dangerous, humans are more important. Those lies.
He won’t hurt them now. He is loose but he is listening, tuned to your sounds.
Your disembodied voice calling over the roar of those waves, those gulls, the ache in it for this moment that you cannot keep, a passing thought.
How did your aunt’s voice sound to her before she fought? At last gasping and never giving in, making death rip her away, clawing until her the final breath. Your grandmother, Daisy, your aunt’s mother, waited in a hospice until she could catch a ride on a passing tornado. You and your aunt had been sitting at the bedside before that storm, when your aunt said,”We’ll never know what made her like she was.”
Daisy kept fighting, even after having so many years, years your aunt thought she would have, but she believed that life was only a dream, so she didn’t claw her way out. She waited for that tornado when she could take off riding another dream and leave people wondering if she’d been dropped along the way so she might haunt her own house.
You want those years. Your voice. The dog that runs to you and sometimes doesn’t, that constant tugging, leash or not, that pure communion, that sacred cord, something more than trust.
You take those seashells from the sand and clear water to make frames for mirrors, jewelry boxes for treasures for your nieces, your precious far-away nieces. Make them gifts you can construct from a place you want to call home.
You wish to be tethered to something solid, to be able to punch as hard as you can, as you could, a child who almost every time won the game of tether ball, your wrists red and bruised, while you stood determined in dry mountain air to make the ball circle and circle and tighten into place to win. You remember Jemez. The cliffs loomed tall and red all around. Zuni. You learned to make pottery from the dirt.
You want it to be like that wreck your first love took you on, tumbling off the side of the mountain, the car caught dangling from a tree. You were lifted out into the arms of the father of your child, only he wasn’t a father then and he wasn’t gone, abandoning his child, then dead in another wreck a few years later.
He lifted you out and you limped but didn’t want to tell on him, the drinking and the pot, how he kept taking the curves too fast and sloppy, or talk about the muddy feeling of falling over and being knocked unconscious, waking while walking down a gravel mountain road, being carried when your ankle could bear no more weight. At home in the trailer, you moved so carefully and never admitted the broken ankle to your watchful mother.
You want that crazy luck. For the dog to live at least eight more years with you, past sixteen, as far as life can ever be. You want to live strong and grieve that love far far from now and have another.
In the parking lot near the hospital you saved the kitten your lover named Rousseau, found him a home and you feel sad though you didn’t want another, the stink and the tear, but now want him in all his black and white joy of being in a warm house or a cool house with all the food he desires and his little head listening to your heartbeat with the dog watching, the years stretching ahead.
You find him a home where he’s got that still, not with you but you hope they keep him safe inside, keep the birds unharmed from his claws.
You want to heal like your ankle once did. Easy. No fuss. Maybe no healing is necessary, just the practice of life, running some laps with the dog, these bones should last longer. There will be so many kinds of marathon’s. The old cat mewl. The ancient dog groan.
You wonder for months about time, until the doctor tells you about scaring, about histoplasmosis, valley fever, did you ever feel tired, tired, did you ever travel to a third world country? They don’t know which but many viruses must have caused all those nodules.
You call your mother and tell her you once had an illness that almost killed Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and you never knew it. You tell her don’t worry you will be all right. Don’t worry. Neither of you know yet about her own lungs, the longing and loss that will soon follow. One of you has another chance.