This is the first chapter of my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother–A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness.
This story begins to explore a three generational pattern of mothers leaving daughters–and what necessarily comes in the wake of such troubles.
The beginning paragraphs are from a dream I kept having about my mother and me after she died.
The train bisects the blue and the green, parting wheat fields by the tracks. Mommy and I rub shoulders, sitting in the last car, watching the landscape move backward, as if erasing my childhood, all those times 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, with tracks going and coming in all directions. People stand shivering in the ever-present plains wind, their hair kicked up violently when a train blows by, especially a freight bound for Chicago where, as I understand it, all sensible trains end up. To me, the Windy City, as I hear my mother and grandmother call it, is the end of the known world. It is where I began and where my mother is off to as the three of us—my mother, Josephine, my grandmother, Frances, and I—stand in a miserable clutch. I am sure they are as miserable as I am, my mothers, standing there with their arms across their chests, hips slung out, like bored movie stars competing for 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. To me both of them are beautiful and thrilling.
But underneath their beauty and power, a secret is buried. A secret that runs in the blood. This moment repeats for the third time what has happened before—a mother leaving a daughter, repeating what Gram did to my mother so long ago, and her mother before her. 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 am four years old. I hear of Indian chiefs and the frontier, if not from books, then from the pictures all around town proclaiming our cowboy heritage—neon signs, billboards showing an Indian chief in full headdress, peace pipe slung from an arm as casually as a gun. Right now the picture of an Indian, wearing only a blanket and standing in front of the Santa Fe Chief, hangs on the waiting room wall, wreathed in smoke rising like a mysterious code to the ceiling.
I read the code here, 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 in a pang, the scenes that brought us to this moment fresh in my mind.
Mommy and I came here a few months ago from Chicago, where we had lived after my father left. I don’t know much about him, except that he went off to the war, and came back too, 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 an army 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 big fur coat.
“That was the night before you were born, a cold night in March. What a wonderful thing that was for your mother.” Mommy often talks about herself like that, as if she wasn’t in the room.
I remember our time in Chicago, when Mommy would talk on the phone forever in the evening, twisting her hair in tiny ringlets all over her head, or knitting scarves and sweaters. I remember the amber light that shone over her like a halo, and I remember that I’d do anything to get her to scratch my back with her sharp fingernails.
But a few months ago, we left Chicago; it was 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 that sounded like scary monsters speeding us by green fields and blue skies all around, with little towns along the side of the track and people waving, waving as if they knew us. The whistle tooted a special hello to them. What fun.
That night the porter unfolded the special bed that was our seat, pulling down a shade made of thick green cloth. I loved the little tent he made for us. My mother had a dreamy look on her face, staring at the sights as the wheels click-clacked beneath us. She wore her cotton nightgown, and I my pajamas. We 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.
She looked like my mother, with the same pretty face. Her voice was soft as she sifted my fine hair away from my forehead in a gentle gesture and smiled at me with soft brown eyes so dark I couldn’t see the pupils you can see in most people’s eyes. She was nice to me and called me Sugar Pie. But Mommy and Gram—whew—they sure did surprise me by fighting all the time. I’d watch, or hide in the hall, while they yelled, screamed, and cried. Almost every day. It was terrible to hear; 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 and nice in Gram’s little house. Windows let in the sun through the Venetian blinds, making pretty patterns on the hardwood floors. Gram read stories to me, and we made bubbles with soap in the sink. She taught me to eat prunes every morning. I began learning how words make stories come alive—Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Bears. Every day 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 to either blow up or not fight at all. Finally the explosion came, my mothers opening and closing angry mouths. I kept my eye on them while I put dishes on the table.
“I hate this place,” Mother said, stomping her heels on the floor.
Gram made a nasty face. Their voices had sharp edges, and got so loud I had to put my fingers in my ears. They were so loud, so angry, sounding like screeching birds. Then something happened. Mommy got really quiet, which scared me even more, and said, “That’s it; I’m going back to Chicago.” I can’t say how I knew it, but I could tell that she wasn’t going to take me, and that if she left me now, it would be forever.
I watched her walk 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 is darkness and ice all the way though me. I am shivering. How can she leave? She knows I don’t want her to go. My mother stands apart from me and from Gram, far enough to show that she is the one leaving, the one who will go alone on the train. I dread 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 I know that she and Gram don’t want me to do this. I don’t want to make them mad; I don’t want them to look at me with those dark eyes of disapproval. I couldn’t stand it. So I pretend.
The wind blows through me, whirling my dress. Then the sound of the whistle cries out, as if in pain. A deep sorrow lurches through me. I hold my breath to keep myself from crying. The light appears at the far end of the tracks and gets bigger. I can’t stop any of this. 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, wrapped tight so it can’t break, 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, almost as if she’s glad to get away. Her seams are straight, and she is so beautiful with the sun on her face as she climbs into the train car.
Mommy, Mommy, I chant silently, bringing my fingers to my nose to inhale her memory, her scent on my skin.
How I want to be on the train, to cuddle up with Mommy the way we did before. But when Gram looks at me with such sadness in her eyes, I know that I need to stay with her. It’s funny that she was so mad before, but now I can tell she is sad, though she doesn’t say it in words. I take her hand and stand with her as 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.
If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. Toni Morrison
You want to share your life with your readers—the smell of your grandmother’s garden in the spring, how you and your sister struggled with each other, only to leave love notes of apology after. Your mother, father, friends, the geography of your hometown and state—all these and so much more are part of the history you carry inside you. Your memories are a part of your inner life all the time. The challenge is to find a way to bring them to the page so you can share them with others in your memoir. Writers often struggle with memory, asking, “Do I have enough memories to write a memoir? Are my memories ‘correct?’ What if someone disagrees—will I be found out or exposed like James Frye was a few years ago?”
There is no such thing as “correct” memories. We all interpret what we have perceived, which is why people see the same events differently. Each person who sees a single event is like a slice of pie—each section looks toward the middle from a different angle. Everyone in a family could write a different memoir—if they dared—and some family members have done just that like Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors and his mother Margaret Robison’s The Long Journey Home. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff’s book Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines show different sides of the same story. So decide on your point of view, the memories that are important to you, and write.
There are many ways to capture your memories. Memories exist as wisps of perfume, snippets of images, stories that haunt our dreams, fragments that wait for us to breathe full life into them so they can unfold on the screen of our story.
Streams of memory arise when we hear a song, or when smells and sounds remind us of certain moments. You can look for these streams by doing research: visit your home town where there is history and meaning, memories around every corner. When I first started exploring my past, I took the long trek to visit the town where I grew up in Oklahoma. As the familiar lay of the land, the rise of the wheat elevators, the smells of earth rose up, I was shocked and amazed at the rush of images, like a movie in fast motion, as I drove down familiar roads. My body knew this as home, and triggered more memories than I could have imagined—fueling my need to capture them before they just as easily flew away.
To remember more details and find new memories, look at old family photographs, listen to songs that were popular when you grew up, explore your town on Google Earth. Research is a great way to get started. Then place your fingers over the keyboard and invite images and snippets to flow from your fingers. You can begin with a piece of story, an image, a sensual experience — listen to your body/mind as the story takes shape and take dictation!
Begin with a scene—put yourself in a specific time and a place in the scene. This helps you to write directly from sensual experience. Write from who you were at a specific age, and freewrite what flows.
Dreams help us get into our stories and memories. Write down your dreams, and then keep writing, free associating, exploring. Sometimes insights and connections happen when we aren’t trying.
Dive into the tough memories, into the stories that scare you, the stories you don’t want to write. It is here where the gold is found, the moments in your life that you need to understand, your secrets and regrets. What are the life lessons that haunt you, that come back to you on soft feet in the middle of the night? These contain some of the important points of your life, the times that tug at your heart and soul. There are riches in these moments for you to explore.
Memoir writing is about capturing who we are and were. We need to be honest, to write our truths as best we can, not worrying about a publisher, the public, an agent or even the family. We have to be true to ourselves in our first draft. The best stories are the deepest truths that we can share as we dig into what it means to be human, what it’s like to travel our own unique path. In the current marketplace, if and when you’re interested in publishing, people are eager to learn from others—a memoir invites people into their own living room, even their hearts—and in this we all become deeply intertwined in the shared stories of human experience.
Tips for Capturing Significant Memories
- Write down memories on envelopes at the market, in the car—parked of course, or taking a walk. Call yourself and leave a message. Text it to someone. Take a note on your cell phone. If you don’t write it down, it disappears.
- Get out photo albums. Use photos as a trigger to write. Write about what you were feeling. Write about what happened before and after the photo was taken.
- Describe the photo in detail, and muse about its meaning, what’s hidden that the viewer can’t see. If it’s a photo of long dead relatives that fascinates you, write what you imagine happened on that day. Weave in the family stories.
- Talk with friends, and write down what you remember together.
- Family events can be triggers for your memoir file. Write things down or put them on tape.
- If you have a computer, surf the web for memoir writing sites, memory preservation sites, war stories. It’s all out there.
- Write for 10 minutes, a short vignette.
- Next time, write for 20 minutes. Notice that the more you write, the more you write!
- Basic rule: do not throw away anything. Do not hit the delete key. The Make a file called “saved early drafts.” Don’t listen to that inner critic. It doesn’t yet know what you are about. Fear and shame are friends of the inner critic. If these are parts of you, then beware of any little voice that tells you to throw your writing away. It’s most often wrong. Besides, computer files don’t take up much room. Keep your stories—they are part of your research and your journey.
- Invite dreams, favorite memories and unforgettable moments. Allow them to flow through you in a freewrite—writing for 15 minutes without taking your fingers off the keys or your hand from the page. Get into the flow—it helps develop your writing stamina.
- Don’t worry about where to start or what you will write about. Write short vignettes to quilt together later.
- Remember, you have your own story. Don’t let the point of view of family members interfere with writing YOUR story.
- Childhood can be a treasure of all kind of memories, both good and bad. Allow yourself to be in the body and in the sensory experience of the child and take dictation. Notice voice, details, and language and write in the flow of what you remember.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle, and the other is as if everything is a miracle. – Albert Einstein
Truman Capote: To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.
Memoirs are woven from memories, but many memoirists I speak with wonder if they have enough memories, or if their memories are “correct.”
Families share memories around the table and pore over family photo albums, reminiscing and remembering—and these memories are the tools we use to create our stories. Some people feel they don’t have enough memories to write memoir while others are overwhelmed by them. We can evoke and mine our memories, to help coax them from hiding, to invite them to awaken.
There are many ways to capture your memories. Memories exist as wisps of perfume, snippets of images, stories that haunt our dreams, fragments of our lives waiting for us to breathe full life into them so they can unfold on the screen of story.
Streams of memory arise when we hear a song or when smells and sounds remind us of certain moments. Do you start remember more when you visit your home town? To help me remember more details, I would visit the town where I grew up, flooded at times by a river of memory as I made my way down familiar roads and looked at the high school, grade school, and where I was first kissed. In my journal, I captured the rush of images and memories that seemed to arise from the cells of my body.
One way to encourage your memories: simply place your fingers over the keyboard and begin writing. Start with a piece of story, an image, or a sensual experience and listen to your body/mind as it spins out words. Allow it to flow through you, to take its own form. Some of you prefer a pen and paper. Just allow the words and image to follow in a non-linear way. You can sort it out later. Begin with a scene—place yourself in a specific time and a place. Being in a specific setting helps you to ground you as a “character” who is experiencing the moment as you lived it. Your body remembers.
Dreams help to reveal our stories and memories. Write down your dreams, and then keep writing to muse about the meaning of your dream. Write it in detail in the present tense. Your subconscious mind wants to help you!
Dive into the tough memories, the stories that scare you, the stories you don’t want to write. It is here that you will find gold. These are moments in your life you need to understand better, the things you are embarrassed about, the decisions that you regret.
What life lessons haunt you, that come back to you on soft feet in the middle of the night? These contain important points of your life, the times that tug at your heart and soul. These stories can form the emotional core of your memoir.
Remember, writing a memoir invites us to explore the meaning of our lives, the stories of our true selves, not just the superficial moments. Memoir writing is about capturing the essence of an experience. We need to be true to ourselves. We are not writing to justify our lives we are writing to learn about who we are, to explore meaning and make a discovery. The most interesting stories are when readers discover who they are along with you. That means you are writing into the unknown!
Tips for Capturing Memories
- Write down memories on envelopes at the market, in the car—parked of course, or taking a walk. If you don’t write it down, it disappears.
- Record your thoughts on your smartphone or a small recorder.
- Send yourself an email of the ideas that come up on your hike or as you drive—pull over first!
- Get out photo albums and select the images that have the most meaning to you. Use the photo as a trigger to write about what was important for you. Write what you were feeling. Write about what happened before and after the photo was taken.
- Describe the photo in detail. Muse about what is hidden that the viewer can’t see.
- Talk about your memories with friends, and write down what you remember together.
- Family events can be triggers for your memoir file. Write things down or record them.
- If you have a computer, surf the web for memoir writing sites, memory preservation sites, war stories. It’s all out there.
- Write for 5 minutes, a short vignette.
- Next time, write for 10 minutes.
- Basic rule: do not throw away your early efforts. Keep them. The “critic-censor” can be far too critical. Make a file called “saved early drafts.”
- Allow dreams, favorite memories and unforgettable moments to be your writing material. Allow the writing to flow through you without stopping.
- Write short vignettes to quilt together later.
- Remember, you have your own story. Don’t let family or friends interfere with writing YOUR story.
- Childhood can be a treasure of all kind of memories, both good and bad. Allow yourself to be in the body and in the sensory experience of the child and take dictation. Notice the voice, details, and language.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle, and the other is as if everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein