On International Women’s Day, I find myself thinking of the women who shaped my life—especially my mother and grandmother. This year I’m planning to re-issue Don’t Call Me Mother in a new edition, and add new stories. Writing a memoir changes your life—as many of you know—and it changed mine, bringing perspective and forgiveness through layers of childhood experience.
Here’s chapter one of Don’t Call Me Mother—Tracks to My Heart.
Tracks to my Heart
The train bisects the blue and the green, parting wheat fields by the tracks. Mommy and I rub shoulders, watching the landscape move backward as we sit in the last car, as if erasing my childhood when she would board the train and leave me aching for her. Now, in my dream, we rub shoulders, her perfume lingering. The old longing wrenches my stomach.
Click-clack, click-clack, the train’s wheels on the track, the language of my past, my future.
Her face is soft. Her wine-dark eyes glance at me with promise, an endearing look that gives me all I ever wanted. The click-clack ticks away the time, the mother time, moons rising and falling as the years fall like petals in a white garden, our body-and-blood song haunting my dreams. Mommy, where are you.
Even as she is with me, she is gone.
The train station is the center of the universe, tracks going to the edges of the world all directions. People shiver in the ever-present plains wind, their hair kicked up violently when a train blows by, especially a freight bound for Chicago where all sensible trains end up. The Windy City, as my mother and grandmother call it, is the end of the known world. It’s where I began and where my mother is off to now as the three of us – my mother, Josephine, my grandmother Frances, and I – stand in a miserable clutch. Are they as miserable as I am, my mothers, standing there arms across their chests, hips slung out like bored movie stars wanting the same part? Maybe that’s what they are doing – vying for the part of good mother, or bad mother, depending on how you define things. I think they’re beautiful and thrilling and I love them both.
Underneath their beauty and power, a secret is buried. A secret that runs in the blood. In a few minutes, we will all be part of a repetition what has happened before – a mother leaving a daughter, Gram left my mother as a little girl, and Gram’s mother didn’t raise her all the way up. It will be years before I find out the whole story about the three generations of women who will define my life. At this moment, the ticking bomb is set to go off when my mother gets on the train. No one here claims any knowledge of this dire pattern. I can feel it though, deep in a silent place inside me, a place of desperation, the beginning of a crack that will split my life open.
The sun pinks the sky in the west, a place where the eye loves to rest in this open land. Already the lore of its history tickles my curiosity, even though at this moment I’m four years old. I know of Indian chiefs and the frontier, if not from books, from the pictures all around town proclaiming our cowboy heritage – neon signs and billboards showing an Indian chief in full headdress, a peace pipe slung from an arm as casually as a gun. A painting of an Indian wearing a blanket and standing in front of the Santa Fe Chief train with its red and yellow engine hangs on the waiting room wall, smoke rising like a mysterious code to the sky.
I read the code here at the station, tapping feet in open-toed suede shoes. I stare at my mother’s toes, as if to memorize an intimate part of her, bringing my gaze up her shapely legs. My stomach’s in a pang, the scenes that brought us to this moment fresh in my mind.
Mommy and I came here a while ago from Chicago, where we lived after my father left when I was less than a year old. I don’t know much about him, except that he went off to the war and came back, but not to us. She cries when she looks at his pictures. Every so often she shows me a small black-and-white photo of a man wearing a captain’s hat and grinning as he leans casually against a brick building. The crease in his pants is knife sharp. With her slim fingers, she caresses a photograph of herself against the same wall wearing a fluffy fur coat.
“That was the night before you were born, a cold night in March. What a wonderful thing it was for your mother.” Mommy talks about herself like that, as if she’s not in the room.
I remember our time in Chicago–Mommy would talk on the phone in the evening, twisting her hair in tiny ringlets all over her head, or knit scarves and sweaters. I remember the amber light shining over her dark hair like a halo. But a few months ago, we left – my first time on the train. The ride was thrilling: the sound of the whistle, huge clouds of gushing steam, great deep rumblings of the engines speeding us by green fields and blue skies. We sped by towns along the side of the track and people waved as if they knew us. The whistle tooted a special hello to them. What fun.
That night the porter unfolded the special bed and pulled down a shade made of thick green cloth. I loved the cozy tent—my mother with a dreamy look on her face, staring at the sights as the wheels click-clacked along. Mommy and I cuddled between fresh cotton sheets. The train rocked us back and forth, back and forth in a sweet rhythm that one day I would remember as the best moment we ever had, Mommy and me. On the train, together. The next day, we arrived in Wichita where I met Gram, Mommy’s mother.
Gram looked like my mother, with the same pretty face. Her voice was soft as she sifted my fine hair away from my forehead and smiled at me with soft brown eyes so dark I couldn’t see the pupils. She was nice and called me Sugar Pie. But Mommy and Gram – whew – they sure did surprise me by fighting all the time. I’d hide in the hall while they yelled, screamed, and cried. Almost every day. It was terrible — it made my skin itch. I scratched the itch, making red marks on my arms. Their cigarette smoke filled the air.
When Mommy rushed off to work each morning it was quiet in Gram’s little house. Windows let in the sun, making pretty patterns through the Venetian blinds on the hardwood floors. Gram read me stories, and we made bubbles with soap in the sink. I began learning how words make stories come alive – Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Bears while I waited for Mommy to come home. I loved her throaty voice, the way she touched my hair for a moment. I was always slinking around trying to get more hugs out of her, but she was not much for that.
One evening, everything seemed different. Mommy yelled, threw down her purse. Lit cigarette after cigarette, the frown between her eyes deepening with each puff. Gram edged around her, as if she were looking for a way either to blow up or not fight at all. Finally the explosion, my mothers with angry mouths opening and closing. I kept my eye on them.
“I hate this place,” Mother said, stomping her heels on the floor.
Gram made a nasty face. Their voices had sharp edges, so loud I put my fingers in my ears. They sounded like screeching birds. Then Mommy got really quiet, which scared me even more. “That’s it, I’m going back to Chicago.” I can’t say how I knew it, but I knew she wasn’t going to take me. If she left me, it would be forever. This knowledge was deep as bone.
Mother paced back and forth across the floor. The seams in her hose were crooked. Mommy never had crooked seams. I sat on the floor, my stomach in a knot, while I traced the patterns in the Oriental rug. I wanted to get lost in those swirls, like in a dark forest in the fairy tales. I could get lost and never be found again.
So here we are, waiting for the train. My chest is tight, there’s darkness and ice all the way though me. How can she leave? She knows I don’t want her to go. Mother stands apart from me and Gram, far enough to show that she’s the one leaving, the one who will go alone on the train. I hate the train that’s about to take her away. All around me everyone acts normal. People bustle around getting ready, the train men push luggage carts, kids jump up and down. Words that I cannot say gather in my mouth, fill my whole body. Every muscle wants to run to her, grab at her and scream, “Please don’t go,” but they don’t want me to say this. I don’t want to make them mad, I don’t want them to look at me with those dark eyes of disapproval. So I’ll pretend with a smile despite the harsh wind that blows through me, whirling my dress, my hair. The sound of the whistle cries out, a deep sorrow lurches through me. I hold my breath to keep from crying. A light appears at the far end of the tracks and gets bigger. The huge train tears into the station, rumbling the earth beneath my feet, kicking up my hair with the blast of wind. A scream comes out of my mouth, but no one hears me. The locomotive is too huge, too powerful and frightening, and it is coming to take my mother away.
Mommy and I are wrapped in invisible gauze, but as she touches me softly with her fingertips and leans over to give Gram a kiss, I can feel the fabric unwrapping, unwinding us until just a thin piece is left. She hugs me lightly, as if she’s afraid I’ll cling to her. Her musky smell clings to me. She click-clacks toward the train on her high heels, as if she’s glad to get away. Her seams are straight, and she’s so beautiful with the sun on her face until she climbs into the train car.
Mommy, Mommy, I chant silently, putting my fingers to my nose to inhale her memory, her scent on my skin.
How I want to cuddle up with Mommy on the train. But Gram looks at me with such sadness in her eyes, I know I have to stay with her. She was so mad before, but now she’s sad, though she doesn’t tell me in words. I take her hand and we watch the train disappear down the track in a puff of smoke.
The train whistle cries its lonely song, lingering in the wind that crosses the plains. It will call for me all my life, in my dreams and while I am awake. The train song, the train’s power and promise are etched deep in my soul from this day forward.