As promised last month – here is an excerpt from my memoir. Feel free to comment. I’d love to hear from you.
LIFE is about connection
Follow the threads, follow the connection – what led you to here? And to hear? And what do YOU hear?
For a few short moments before posting this, I had to relax my breathing, remember, that this too is part of the story, my story. I then went to Twitter, you know – to distract myself and a message from the universe appeared – I’m headed in the right direction.
From Anne Lamott – You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
I am lying in Momma’s bed, which is my bed too. I am four and wearing my pink nightgown. I don’t like pink, but since I’m a girl I have to wear it. My blond hair is ratty and laying on the pillow. I don’t like to comb it, ever. My mouth is crusty on the side from drooling through the night. I have one of my stick legs kicked out of the covers because I get hot sometimes.
The queen-sized bed is parked in the left corner of the room against the wall. I sleep closest to the wall so I won’t fall out of the bed. I never thought I would fall out of bed, but Momma says “Gaaddamn it, move over or you’ll fall right out.” One of Momma’s favorite words is “Gaaddamn it”, with an A drawn out right in the beginning, she strings it on to the front or end of most any sentence. Her favorite is when she’s trying to yell at one of us and can’t get to the right name fast enough, “Billy, Jenny, Patrick, Michael, Peggy….Gaaddamn it, Amy Beth!”
I stay in the middle as best I can. Momma sleeps near the window and I’m glad because if anyone ever breaks in, she’ll get them before they get me. She’s tough. She had me when she was 46. She says “No one has a normal baby at 46, most of them come out retarded.” She can also knock you into next week with one backhand and that means strong.
Momma has a few things on the top of the brown wooden headboard. A bobby pin, which she uses to clean her ears in the morning, a jelly jar full of water that is mine that I drink out of when I get thirsty at night and her reading glasses which are smeared and greasy on the front. I don’t know how she sees out of them. She once let me try them. They made me blind. If I touch the bobby pin or glasses, she gets so mad at me and yells loud. “Gaaddamn it Amy Beth – if I told you once, I told you a hundred times. Don’t touch my Gaaddamn glasses.”
I am the last of Momma’s ten babies, and the last always sleeps with Momma, there isn’t room anywhere else. There is only one real bedroom in our house. It is at the top of the stairs, that Momma can’t climb because she is too fat. If we’re trying to get away from Momma that’s where we go – right up those stairs. Outside of that room is a landing where there are 3 more beds. Downstairs behind the kitchen is a pantry that we use as a bedroom. The pantry, the bathroom and the room upstairs have doors on them. None of the other rooms do. Momma’s room is big and wide with 3 windows, but it is not really a bedroom, it is more like a living room or something else, but we use it as a bedroom. There is a walk-in closet sized room off of Momma’s room that my oldest brother Mark sleeps in.
When I wake up and am scared at night I twirl a ringlet of Momma’s hair between two fingers. It is smooth and silky. I want to put my whole face in her hair to be close to her. I never get very much time alone with her, except here – in the bed, in the middle of the night, she is all mine. Sometimes, I twirl her hair too tight and she wakes up and yells “Gaaddamn it, what are you doing!?” and then falls right back asleep.
In bed, short rays of sun dance in through the windows, shining spots onto my blanket. I stare at the wall where there is plaster missing. Chunks of plaster are missing from the walls in spots all over the house. Some are small, like my hand, others are as big as my whole body. In the places where the plaster is missing I can see thin boards that are rough and splintery, in between them there is gray rocky plaster. I am not supposed to pick at it.
When Momma is out of the bed and I am alone, I do pick at the plaster. I hold my hands down as long as I can, but they just want to pull that plaster out. I try to see if I can pull out long pieces without breaking them. My finger is just the right size to fit in the space between the boards. The plaster is cool on my warm hands, rough, but falls apart easy. I line up the pieces I pull out of the wall on the bed next to me, brushing the crumbs onto the floor. Sometimes plaster falls back into the wall where no one will ever see it.
There are thin gray hairs in the plaster. My brother, Bobby, who is next oldest to me, 5 years older, tells me “There is horse hair in that plaster.” I don’t believe him, because he also tells me that a tiny little witch lives in the knot, which looks like a tiny little door, in the giant maple tree by the Arnold house, 3 houses down from ours. I don’t walk past the front of that tiny little door by myself though, just in case he is right.
After lining the pieces up, I imagine they are rock candy. I lift each one as soft as I can and bite the end of it. I like the longest pieces best, fully formed and taken from their home in the wall. Biting off the end of a long piece is the best feeling in the whole world.
They taste like what I think chalk might taste like. I know not to eat chalk, but I can’t help from eating the plaster. I try not to as hard as I can, but I love the gritty feel and the crunching it makes when I bite down on it with my small black teeth. Most people have white teeth, but mine are white and black. Rotten.
I am careful to hide the pieces behind the blanket because if I get caught I will get the paddle. I don’t know why I get the paddle for eating plaster, I can’t help but eat it.
Bobby walks in the room. He is taller than me with sparkly blue eyes, a mop of blond hair that swoops down on the left side of his face and freckles on his nose. I hurry and cover the pieces of plaster, my mouth is full of it though and he sees me.
“Mom, Amy’s eating the plaster again!” He yells behind him, flat, focused, as if he sees me doing this every day.
“It’s going to rot your teeth out you know?”
I don’t know that it’s going to rot my teeth out, they are already rotten and I hardly ever eat plaster.
Momma comes in the room marching her fat body over to the bed, snatches back the covers and looks at me with her serious sad face and saggy skin hanging down, her black and gray curls bouncing around.
She looks sad and then angry, “Gaaddamn it, quit picking at the plaster, you kids will ruin this Gaaddamn house one day. Amy Beth, I told you to stop eating that goddamn plaster. Now get out of that bed.”
Bobby sticks his tongue out at me.
Momma grabs my arm, her short fingernails biting into me through my nightgown and yanks me out of the bed and onto my feet on the floor in front of her.
I finish crunching my plaster.
“Momma, I don’t want to eat it, I have to.” I look up at her with the saddest eyes I know how to make.
“I’ll teach you to eat that plaster, I’ve warned you enough.”
I drag my feet as she keeps hold of my arm and pulls me into the living room, which is just outside our bedroom.
“No Momma, no Momma, please no Momma.” I cry before the paddle is even down off the hook.
The paddle is made of wood. On one side it has a saying on it that I can’t read and some kids standing against a fence with their butts out like they are about to get spanked. On the other side Momma has written the names of every person she has ever spanked with that paddle. The list goes all the way down. Linda, Brian, Kloosie, Joey, Chrissy, Billy, Jon Jon, Heather, Kelly, Denise, Tom…so many I can’t keep count.
If Momma likes you, she hits you nice and soft. If Momma’s mad, she hits you mean and hard. She’s always hitting someone with something, whatever is closest, she’ll throw things too and she has a good aim. She’ll spank a neighbor kid as fast as she’ll spank any of us and then send them home saying “Go ahead and tell your Momma I spanked you and see if she doesn’t hit you too.”
I put my hands over my butt so she won’t swing the paddle.
“Move ‘em, or I’ll hit ‘em!”
“No Momma, I’ll be good I promise.” I cry
“I’ve warned you enough, now move ‘em.”
I hear the paddle swing back through the air and move my hands just as it reaches my butt.
I jump forward a little, but Momma still has my arm so I can’t get away. Smack, it stings and I feel the heat of the stinging run out and down my legs, smack, smack, smack.
She turns my arm loose and I fall on the ground crying as loud as I can.
Momma puts the paddle back on the hook and walks toward the kitchen.
Bobby stands over and whispers. “I told you not to eat the plaster.”
Momma hears him and yells back toward us “You’ll be next it if you don’t stop it Mister.” And I laugh through my tears. I laugh.
It was a different time, it was a different place, I can make all the excuses in the world for my Mother, but when it comes down to it, she didn’t know what else to do. I suppose, if I had lived her life, I may have been the same. A man who she kept getting pregnant with, and him never fully being responsible for us kids – he was married to someone else, little income, ten kids, a 9th grade education, depression, worry, worry. She was a victim of her own circumstance, but she didn’t have the skills or the courage to do anything else. She had her reasons for being sad, miserable and for lashing out when she’d had enough.
I used to be afraid to talk about my story, other than making fun of myself and of how I grew up, not realizing that it was terrible to do that. My psyche suffered for years. I now have compassion and empathy for the me that was and for the work that I had to do as an adult to become less caught up in this old story. I used to think if people FOUND OUT who I was, everything I was working toward and even my identity could be taken away. I don’t think I even had an identity, I was just muddling along, muddling along, doing the things everyone does, job, home, tv, blah, blah, blah. I was powerless. In time and through therapy, reading, and believing, I’ve realized that I am powerful and I make my own destiny, I do not have to go back and no one can take this away from me, ever, unless I choose to let them.
For those who say forget your past and move on, I believe there is something valuable at examining your past and figuring out why you do the things you do. Figuring out the why I do it in most everything, has become a passion for me. Sometimes when you find the answer to the why, you don’t need to do it anymore.
By examining the past, I can decide if the story makes me who I am or is just a story that is holding me back from being more alive, a story that creates anxiety. I can decide if I want to change it or keep it. The stories don’t have to keep hurting you forever; you can unravel the mystery.
In writing this particular story I did unravel a mystery, Gypsum, which is in horsehair plaster, reduces fever, according to Chinese medicine. I always kicked my leg out of the bed, maybe I had a fever and my four-year-old body was craving what it needed to do to cool it. Gypsum. I now know to listen to my body – thankfully at the moment, it is not craving plaster.
My whole life has been pushing me to this moment – where I can say, I’m me and that’s all that matters and I know who I am and what I want in the world.
I am not a victim. I got out of there. I have the skills to figure it out.
I do believe my life’s experiences made me who I am today – and I kind-a like who I am today. My past is the reason today – I am fierce in my life, I LOVE fully, and I LIVE fully, without regret. Live.
For some reason, I got out of where I was, not everyone does, but hopefully I can help people see that you can change your life, even if it feels like it is too late, even if you had a wonderful childhood but life feels like it sucks right now, you can change it. If you don’t like how your life is – Change IT.
And I know I’m constantly quoting Danielle LaPorte, but – You can’t face forward until you’ve processed your past.
And then I shivered, I’m headed in the right direction.
What do you hear when you tell yourself some story from your past? How does it make you feel?
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE.
Two notes about this writing session and all future writing sessions that are memoir related, this is my memory of how things were. I have a big family and I’m sure they may remember some things differently or they may remember things that I don’t. All names have been changed, other than mine, Bobby and Michael’s. Bobby and Michael – didn’t get out. They died in 1996 and 1991 respectively – more on that in another session.