I’ve thought about this time in my life a lot lately. It’s hard to imagine me at 11 processing these feelings on my own. I think it all adds up, all the grief, you remember, even if you don’t remember consciously your body remembers and while I do believe if you work with it and acknowledge it, it helps in the letting go – there are still times that it comes back.

* * *


5788669410_dd5f58de70_bMy home sits in the middle of a block in north Portland, Oregon. It’s a 1950s bungalow, remodeled in 1950s style and color, painted a fresh bright mint green, a brown door with three beveled glass windows in it, white trim and two taupe colored stairways leading up from the sidewalk.

One Sunday evening I am staring at nothing out the front windows in the kitchen and see a small black cat, sauntering—yes, he is sauntering—up the left set of stairs. He’s a tiny little thing with bright green eyes. “Oh look, a black cat,” I yell to my partner, Julie. “What?” she says, running into the kitchen, leaning toward the window. He walks right up the steps onto the back patio. Julie is absolutely and utterly excited about the prospect of another cat. She grabs the cat food and rushes outside, sprinkling it on the ground. Not too rushed, though. “I don’t want to scare him off,” she says. I stand inside for a moment and eventually move to the doorway with the door nearly shut behind me so Isabel, the cat that lives with us, doesn’t run out. “Oh, he’s so skinny—he must not have a home. His head looks so big because he’s too skinny.” She is knelt down next to him, but not too close, barely touching him. I can see his tiny ribs, black fur flecked with gray. He is older than I would have thought, his skin sagging a little. The shining smile in Julie’s eyes when she looks up at me has me feeling momentarily outrageous, so much so that I want to shout out, “Let’s keep him!”

“We’ll call him Todd, since his head is so big—after Big Head Todd and the Monsters,” she says. I feel it in my heart, yes, let’s keep him. What happens next is how it always is with me—my brain and my body take over. My old memories flood back to me, and I hate using the word flood to describe emotions, but it is what it feels like. I can’t turn it off. I can talk myself through it, but I can’t turn it off. The images that come to me are the way they are. I can’t really say it out loud either. So I brood on it and sit there, feeling something stuck in my throat, as if to speak it would cause me great harm, but it’s in there and it wants to come out. So much so that this little cat has become a metaphor in my life for the words that I need to speak, that I need to say aloud to help myself and possibly to help someone else. Some part of me believes this. We don’t end up adopting him, but in a way, he adopts me—appearing at just the right times over the next few months to help me remember and pull up these old memories. Coincidence? I think not—Carl Jung says what doesn’t come to you in consciousness comes to you as fate. For me, Todd is both.

So while the world is going on, Julie talking about the cat outside and how he must not have a home and we’ll have to feed him and this and that, I try to distract myself, doing something on the computer or my phone, playing a game, drinking a glass of wine—but that’s not where I am. I’m not even in my body. I’m in a field in Hartland, Michigan, and I am 11.

* * *

I’m in a field of tall grass in the heat of summer. Sweat drips and drops off of me. My blonde hair is pasted against my neck and face. I’m not a very sweaty kid, I’m more of misty kid. Sweat covers me most days from head to toe when it’s hot. I’ve never liked the heat even though I was born in the summer. It gives me a headache. I wish I did like summer. Everyone else can’t wait until it comes around, but I’m too fair-skinned to ever fall in love with it. Most summer days I’m inside, in the water or somewhere cool. If not, I’m likely complaining and miserable, because I can’t stand the heat. But not today. Today, I’m out in the field next to our home in Hartland, Michigan, just three lines in from my thumb, that’s where I live on the map. I’m playing with a bunch of kittens. They are the sweetest things ever, their tiny green eyes and soft baby fur. I love them so much I’ll even stand right in the heat of the sun for them. I whisper to them—things I’ve never heard anyone say to me. “I love you, little kitten.” Always in a hush. I know if someone hears they’ll tease me. We don’t say such things at my house and I don’t know why we don’t, but we don’t and if you even think of such things, someone will call you a baby, an asshole, a witch or something worse. “You’re my best friends.” Grinning as I tell them. A tear wells in the corner of my eye when I say it. I don’t know why that tear does that. I blink it back. “No sense crying over some silly cats.” That’s what I tell myself whenever I start to worry about something I shouldn’t or can’t do anything about. I’m 11, crying is for babies. “No sense crying over that.” The cats are tiny, maybe six or eight weeks old, two gray, one black, and two black and white—“a mixed breed,” Momma would say. I’ve named each of them after someone famous, someone I might be like when I grow up. I wouldn’t ever tell anyone their names. It’s a secret between me and my kittens and if I did tell someone they’d laugh at me and I’d never hear the end of it. There is no use for imagination where I live, but my imagination is strong inside of me. I’m the baby out of 10 kids, so I’m used to having things taken away from me, but they can’t take away what’s in my head, especially when I don’t tell them what’s there.

Momma and Daddy have been gone for nearly a year—I’m not sure they are ever coming back. Daddy, who is this old guy with wispy gray hairs on the top of his head, always covered by a trucker hat or a Greek fisherman’s hat, even though he is not Greek or a trucker, pulled me aside one day and dragged me into the park, which made me want to scream and run away because he gives me the creeps. I get that feeling inside that says something bad is about to happen whenever I am alone with him, and for all the things I don’t feel or don’t admit—that’s one thing I do listen to. He promised he just had something to tell me and wouldn’t do anything bad, so I went with him into the park—and tell me something he did. He told me, with his old coffee breath streaming right out of his mouth into my nose and out the top of my head, that he and Momma were leaving to find work and they’d come back to get me. I didn’t really believe him because I hardly know him and in my family we don’t trust people we don’t know. I also didn’t know what to say. So I stood there in silence and pretended it wasn’t going to happen.

I never knew Daddy before last year when he moved in with us. No one ever even told me he was moving in. I only overheard Momma saying to one of the older kids, “We need him. We’ll have a better life if he’s around.” I haven’t seen anything better since he’s been around. Anyone who was old enough to move out of the house did, right away. Johnny and Bobby are the only ones left with me. With Daddy moved in, the rules changed fast. No TV, unless you wanted to watch PBS, which is the most terrible channel I’ve ever watched. We ate microwave food instead of real food and it didn’t taste good. Momma didn’t watch TV with us anymore, she played cards with him and I had to go to bed at 9:00. Before that I always stayed up past 11:00.

Momma and Daddy left me with Johnny and Bobby. Johnny is 18 and Bobby is 16. Johnny is in charge because he is older, taller than Bobby, and Daddy for that matter, and has a job. He doesn’t go to school anymore, because he quit. I don’t know why he quit, he never told me, and I never asked. He just stopped going one day and that was that. People do this kind of thing all the time in my family, they stop doing something or start doing something and never explain anything and no one asks and it seems no one even cares. Why would you ask anyway?

I’m so sad that Momma left me here and is off doing something with Daddy. I yell at Bobby and antagonize him, until he can’t stand it any longer and he hits me or chases me or holds me down and tickles me until I pee my pants, then he laughs at me and I’m humiliated, which actually makes me feel better than crying about missing Momma. That’s how we work through things around here. We don’t ever talk about a thing and wouldn’t know what you meant if you asked how we were feeling. I’d respond with “I’m alive aren’t I? That’s good enough for me.” But on the inside, I tell you, there’s something dark in me that would love to just jump in the pond and go under the water and never ever come back out. Just stay at the bottom all cried out and dead.

I much prefer living with Johnny and Bobby than having Daddy leering and lurking around every corner being weird and making me watch PBS. I sure do miss Momma though, but I never tell anyone that I do. It’s fun sometimes being with Bobby and Johnny. They let me stay up late, they give me money to leave them alone, and I go to the store and buy candy. They take me with them to places with this loud music playing—I feel like a wild animal, doing whatever comes into my head! Sometimes, though, I wish I were not here but somewhere else, where it’s just me and Momma.

These little kittens I have out in the field with me are like me. Well, not really. Their Momma kitty comes back and brings them food and they get milk from her sometimes, but they are kind of growing up on their own, just like me. Nobody tells me nothing about nothing about growing up, except wash your face, don’t chew with your mouth open and don’t wear that goddamn baseball hat every day. I try to act normal whenever I get in front of anyone I haven’t met before or when I’m at school and everyone else seems to know what they are supposed to be doing, but I’m just lost, walking around looking for someone to tell me what to do. But there isn’t anyone to tell me. These kittens are my only real friends. I know a few kids from school and from around town, but I don’t trust anyone outside my family. I can’t be honest with them. I might end up in a foster house or an orphanage or something worse, and I think the evil and good you know are better than the ones you don’t.

The kittens are good, that is one thing I know for sure.

It’s a sunny morning in the summer, the middle of June, before Bobby’s birthday, which is on the 25th. He is about to turn 17. In my mind, he’s a slob and an ugly-faced pig, but in reality, he’s a sweet-looking boy with a swath of blond hair that’s unruly but handsome all the same. His eyes are twinkling blue, just like mine and just like Momma says Daddy’s are, but I’ve seen Daddy and his eyes look old and gray, not twinkling at all. Bobby’s tall and trim and wears a pair of tight swim shorts when he works in the yard. Secretly I love him so much I’d like to hug him, but I’ll never, ever mention that to anyone, not ever.

I’m out in the sun twirling around in the dirt and I see Bobby and my sister Jenny’s husband, Fred. Fred used to smoke a lot of pot and sell it right out of the kitchen in their trailer. Since they have two kids now, he stopped doing that. Fred seems old to me, 25, with his long black ponytail and scraggly beard. They’re kind of whispering, but whispering in the way that boys do, not whispering at all. Fred says, “Man, there’s about 20 cats around here, I’ve got no idea how in the hell so many cats popped up so fast, but we’ve got to take care of them. The best way to do it is either put them in a bag and throw them in the pond, or put them in a bag and bury them in a hole.” I stop still from my twirling around and around and stare at the dirt. I’m stiff like a board and I want to scream at them “Don’t kill my friends!” but I don’t. It wouldn’t change a thing and they might decide to put me in the hole or in the pond as well, and while I would like to die lots of days, I can’t really make myself go through with that whole idea.

Bobby slams the screen door to the back shed of our house. When Momma was here she would have yelled, “Don’t slam the goddamn door.” But she’s not here so no one cares. I don’t like the slam of the door, but it doesn’t bother me enough to start something with Bobby. He comes back out of the house with a shovel. He strips off his shirt and throws it over one of the three laundry lines we have hanging from the house to the old falling-down barn that has an outhouse connected to it. It’s not a working outhouse—someone filled the holes with dirt. Bobby’s back is brown from sun and I notice muscle on him that I’ve never seen before. This summer he’s working on the hay farm for the first time ever. I don’t think he likes it too much but it’s the only work he can get. His mouth is closed tight and straight across—he’s on a mission. I stand out of the way with my back against the scraped-up house. We scraped the house last year and painted it, but didn’t have enough paint for the back of the house or the back shed, so they are rough to the touch and smell deep of rain and wood. It’s a smell that I would take with me in a bottle if I knew how. He marches off to the back right corner of the yard. He’s wearing his swimming shorts, his white tube socks and his blue Trax shoes from Kmart. I hate Kmart. I’d rather go to the mall, but we can’t afford anything at the mall so we shop at Kmart once a year for clothes. He jabs the shovel at the ground and jumps up and lands on the top of the shovel with both feet pushing it deep into the ground. He does this over and over and over. I know what he’s doing, but I don’t want to admit it. So I watch and watch and then I get hungry as if nothing is going on at all and go over to where he is. “You want a bologna sandwich?” I ask. “Get out of here, Amy,” he says, short and quick. Normally I’d protest and yell something or say something back, but this time I slink off and go and make myself a fried bologna sandwich. I like to cook, and frying up bologna is a special and easy treat. My bologna sandwich has two pieces of bologna, fried until the edges are brown and crispy, Miracle Whip on both pieces of bread, mustard squirted only on the bologna and six potato chips. After my sandwich and a long cool drink out of the hose to wash it down, I go back where he is digging and sit and watch. He’s knee deep in the hole now and I pretend I’ve no idea why he’s digging. I don’t say a word because that’s what we do—we don’t ask. We just pretend we know and keep going along as if we do, but this time I do know. I know he’s about to murder my friends, my little kittens. After what seems like hours, but probably isn’t, Bobby lifts himself up out of the hole. His feet and knees black with soil that Momma says “makes my garden grow the best tomatoes I’ve ever had.” He runs to the back shed of the house and gets a black garbage bag and I still don’t ask what he’s doing. But on the inside I feel something shaking, deep down inside of me that I push down as hard as I can. He heads to the field and I follow, but not too close. He doesn’t look down at all. He grabs each tiny kitten by the scruff of its neck and throws it in the bag. I press myself close to the side of the barn, the rough splintery-filled wood cool against my cheek, breathing in the sweet smell of the barn and holding my breath. I want to ask him what he’s doing and why he’s putting those kittens in the bag, but I can’t open my mouth. My heart beats as if the whole world is counting on me to ask, but I can’t. I turn and walk steady paces long and deep to the back of the barn where I can still see the hole Bobby dug. Unless you were looking for me, you wouldn’t see me. Bobby holds the bag full of kittens wriggling and jiggling out in front of him. He walks fast and even, without looking up, staring straight ahead. He stops above the hole and for one second looks like he might turn back, but doesn’t. He drops the bag of kittens into the hole and shovels dirt back where it came from. He’s moving fast, the shovel turning over and over, and finally the hole is full. His face is without expression at all. His eyes tell me different. There is a tiny bit of sadness leaking out of him, just like those tears leak out of my head sometimes. He tamps the back of the shovel on the dirt, scrapes it over once or twice to even it out and walks away. As if to say, “There, no one will know what I just did.”

I can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe. I lie down on the ground and hold onto it with my hands. The world is spinning out of control. Who puts cats in a bag and buries them? Why couldn’t I ask what was going on? Do I have time to dig them up? There’s got to be some other solution, I know there has to be. I can’t do anything though, I’m 11 and I’m just a baby on the inside still. I can’t do anything, the tears drip right out of my head, I can’t blink them back. I hold the grass as if it’s holding me back, keeping me from spinning right off the earth and into another universe, maybe one where cats don’t get put in bags and get thrown into a hole. I know I’m feeling something but I don’t know what. When I’m sure Bobby is not around, I go and lie next to that pile of smoothed-over dirt and pretend I hear those famous kittens and in my mind they are singing my name and saying, “Go, Amy—go far away and be alive.” And I know that one day I will. I’m not going to die here. I’m not going to die. I will never give up. I will say it over and over and over, I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to stay here and be like this. I’m going to get out. I’m going to get out.

July 1976_searching

It’s my birthday.

For my birthday, I’m putting up this writing session which makes me sad, but at the same time, it makes me happy. I look back at the little me at five and think, you’re amazing. GO! I also look back and think, THAT HAIR! And a pink shirt!?

I am pretty certain that my Mom must have cut my hair for this photo and for some reason it looks orange. My sister always argued with me about this photo and one other saying it was her, but I know this was me. So there. Regardless, it could have been any of us.

We’re human, we’re amazing, it’s what we do with it that matters.

~ July 1976 ~

“Momma, I can sing real good if you want me to.” I said. She looked down and said “No girl, singing’s not going to get you anywhere. Learning is what you need.”

“But Momma, I’m big when I sing.” I stand up tall. She shakes her head back and forth, short curls swaying close to her head. ”No girl, singing’s not for you.”

“I’ll be right back, don’t come looking for me either.”

I know she is not coming back, the little feeling that I’m choking comes up in my throat.

“How long Momma, how long will you be gone?”

Looking down at me she lifts a hand, the back of it brown from sun, she slaps her leg and laughs a little. Her mouth is empty, only a few teeth left, those are black and brown and broken on the edges, she has one gold one in the back. We aren’t that bad off if she hasn’t had to sell that tooth yet.

“I can’t find peace with you Gaaddamn kids”. She mostly smiles with her lips pursed straight across, so that she doesn’t have to show her teeth.

I need to know how long she will be gone.

“How long will you be gone Momma?”

Her serious sad face, her saggy skin hanging down “Just a few minutes.” Turning to the door

“Is a few more than a couple?” I ask. “A couple means two right Momma?” “Yes a few is more than two.” she says “Like five?” “Yes, three, four or five is a few.” “No more than five, right Momma, that would mean many and you said a few. Do you promise Momma? Do you promise it will only be a few?”

“Yes, only a few minutes.”

I throw my arms around her leg and take hold.

When she lies, I feel all tingly on the inside, I can tell so I ask more questions to see if I can figure out the truth.

“How long, how long, how long, don’t leave, don’t leave.” the rhythm of the words choking back tears. Please just tell me “5 minutes, 10, an hour.”

“Now let go of my leg and behave” her polyester pants scratching me as she moves her leg, her hands pushing me down and away. My hands turn cold and as she gets close to the door; I run to it pressing my hands against it as it closes.

I run back to the couch and sit stiff like a board.

“Three, four, five, she’ll be back in three, four or five.” I sing, “3, 4 or 5. 3, 4 or 5 is a few, means more than a couple, that means 2.” I watch the clock. I always watch the clock when she is gone. “Sit still, very still or you might cry. Watch the clock. Watch the clock.”

“3, 4, 5.” I sing, in a small and quiet way.

At three minutes I am hopeful. I can move a little now because I know she’ll be back soon. Four feels good, hopeful. Five is very long but by six she’ll be home, she said so. Five comes and goes and I am not sure what to do. My head says she is not coming back. Five, five, five, she’s not home. I rock back and forth, running my hand along the seam of my pants. They are my favorite pants, purple pants. What if she doesn’t come back?

I punch my leg hard. Maybe I won’t think about her never coming back if I do something else. I hit the place where the bruise is deep, black and lumpy.

The bruise is from Peggy and a game she plays with me to see how much I can stand before I cry. Peggy hits me over and over. I don’t even feel it anymore. It’s just about being strong enough to not cry.

Last week when Momma was in the kitchen making noodles, I was on the couch, watching the black and white TV. Peggy sat beside me and hit the soft fleshy part of my thigh. I winced, but no crying. Pausing, in between the balling up of her fist, she pinched. I looked straight ahead, no crying. My face hot, not saying a word. It could have been worse she could have been kicking me or hitting me with the brush or broom handle, or threatening to stab me with a knife, which is much more scary than this.


“Ready to cry yet?”


Smack. Sucking in air, holding my breath

“How about now”


Smack, smack, smack.


No longer able to hold back the breath, chest rising and falling, the tears came, giving away the pain. I couldn’t stop them once the bruise was deep enough.

I didn’t want her to be able to make me cry.

She turned away happy, smiling, her wavy brown hair flying behind her bee-bop walk into the other room. I got myself back together and just as she was about to leave the room, I laughed and I couldn’t even stop myself from doing it. I laughed and laughed, which brought her back and the hitting and asking started again.

Today, when I hit myself, it doesn’t hurt much. The tears are already welling up because Momma is never coming back. The punching makes me wince, but I’m not afraid of that hurt. Only afraid she is not coming back. It’s 8 now. I want to go looking for her. She said not to, but I have to.

I know when I go looking for her I don’t like what I find.

I can’t wait any longer. Ten minutes is too long for me, I will check with Granny to see if she knows where Momma is. She’s not really my Granny, but that is what everyone calls her. She is smaller than Momma and bent at the shoulders, her blue and pink flowery housedress is always pressed and clean, small glasses shade her eyes, her thick panty hose sag at the ankle. I don’t know her real name. She lives next door and I like that she only has a basin and a toilet, no bathtub or sink in the bathroom. I would like it if I did not have to take a bath. There is a sink in the kitchen, but none in the bathroom. If Momma is not there Granny will give me a cookie, she always does, the kind with jam in the middle from the store, not the kind we have at home.

I peek out the front door though the plexiglass window. It used to be glass-glass but has been broken too many times from angry slams. Every time it broke Momma started crying, someone cleaned it up and put cardboard in the window. Whoever broke it was always long gone and the rest of the day we’d all try to be quiet to not make Momma cry anymore.

After checking the front door, to make sure no one is lying in wait, I open the door, the handle jiggles because it is loose. The smells of summer, grass, lilac, rough wood siding, slip through me. I run down the stairs and across the cement that was replaced earlier in the summer, but has already shown wear because one of my brothers didn’t know how to mix cement. There’s always something half way finished around here.

Running fast across the two driveways, ours and Granny’s, touching the big maple tree that stands in-between them. Hand hitting bark, rough, it’s not smooth like a birch. The gravel is hard on my bare feet, but I am a fast runner and I don’t care.

I hear them after me already, my brother Bobby and his friends, Phil, Joel and Pat, like a wild pack of heathens. Momma calls them that. I am not sure what a heathen is, I imagine it as some sort of monster, gray like a rat with yellow teeth and the legs of a lamb, where you aren’t quite sure what you are going to get the good side or the bad.

Yelling, they chase me.

“Yeah, get her, we’re going to pound you AmyBeth.” They say my name as if it is one word all strung together. Stomach lurching, eyes darting back and forth searching for an exit, I run faster.

At Granny’s door, I know I should knock and wait for her to come but if I knock they’ll be here before I get in. And today they might wring my neck good. I reach and grab the doorknob, lungs pumping, hands slippery wet with sweat, open the door shove myself through and quickly but gently close it behind me. I slide my back down against it, breathing out fear.

I hear Momma laughing in the other room, a laugh that comes from the belly, the kind like you really mean it.

“Who’s there?” Granny calls, she sounds like the voice on an old record.

“Probably one of those gaaddamn kids looking for me.”

I walk through the kitchen, the dining room, and into the sitting room. Passing the cookie jar, which seems to smile at me as I walk past. Standing up tall and proud, a fake smile across my face, maybe they’ll think I’m pretty.

“I found you Momma.” I say as sweet as I can.

She looks angry and rolls her eyes. My shoulders fall forward, head down.

“I told you not to come looking for me.”

She nods to Granny “I can’t stay away for not one minute.”

Granny who smells like liniment, laughs and smiles at me as if to say you’ll be ok.

“Now gaaddamn it I told you I’d be home soon now get the hell out of here, I’m having a quiet time with Granny.”

It hurts me in my heart, more than punching my bruise, when she says things like that. I turn around and run but know I can’t go back outside, I don’t want to get beat up just yet.

I’ll wait until I hear Momma leaving.

I pretend to leave, opening and closing the door and then shuffle into Granny’s bathroom, lifting the lid of the white wicker hamper, I hike one leg up and pull using my back to push forward, I slip down into the hamper and close the lid. The rubber rim around the lid does not make a sound when it closes. I sink down into the dirty clothes. It is musty here, but it feels safe. The smell is like the hair from Granny’s trash that we burn on the burn pile. She wears her hair in a bun, when she lets it down it’s down to her waist. When she brushes it hair gets trapped in the brush, she pulls it out in little bundles and throws it into the trash that we collect, because we are always helpful to Granny. I like to watch the long gray hairs burn, bright red at the ends, winding around through paper. The smell of it is nice and bad all at the same time and I like it.

In the hamper, I get nervous that if I don’t go home Momma will hit me with the paddle for coming to look for her, I wait for a while longer, which is probably only a minute or two and scramble out of the hamper, head first, hands out, the whole thing tilting behind me. I make the few steps from the hamper to the door silently. I stand on tip-toes looking out the glass-glass in Granny’s window. No one is around. Bobby, Phil, Joel and Pat are in the backfield. I grab the handle and turn it as quiet as I can. Sliding out the door, this time not running at all. They may not hear me if I walk soft. I pass through gravel, tree, dirt, broken cement, uneven stairs that creak which reminds me. Momma says they’ll need to be fixed by winter and where the hell is she going to get that money?

I’m not tall enough to see in the door window from the outside. Most times no one is home during the day but me and Momma, so I don’t feel too much worry going back into the house.

It’s quiet inside and smells of dust and plaster.

Maybe if I can sleep, I will wake up and she will be here. That’s what I’ll do, I’ll sleep, close my eyes.

To be safe, I move the couch out just a little using my hip and leg to push with force. I grab a wadded up blanket from the chair and slide behind and under the couch. The heathens can’t find me here. Momma will know to look for me if she comes home though. She knows all my hiding places. Lying there, I stare at the wall. She might be gone forever. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Sing your song. Sometimes singing makes me sleepy. Go on sing. I know that singing makes me feel better especially if I get all the words right. Where is thumbkin, where is thumbkin? I sing quietly, the words rock me back and forth. I use one finger from each hand to talk to the other.

It takes a long time to fall asleep during the day, especially if when Momma is gone forever and I don’t know where I’ll get any food. But, if I am behind the couch with a blanket it seems like a cocoon and that is good. I know I can’t get up and look at the clock because she is still not home and it makes the lie seem bigger the longer she stays away.

I pick at the plaster and at the peeling off wallpaper. No one can see it here, it’s ok if I peel it off. I won’t get yelled at. The paper is brown on the edges. It used to be tan, now its ugly and torn like someone peed on it. I am sure someone probably did or spilled some slop on it. The carpet behind the couch smells like dirt and old things. It’s red and yellow with a wavy curly design in it. It has been worn thin, even here behind the couch. Yellow fibers show through where there should be red. Sometimes the dusty smell makes me sneeze. I know how to sneeze real quiet so no one will hear me or find me back here. As long as I am hiding, no one can see me, they can’t bother me.

The creak of the door scares me, hot air streams in.


Spring, 1980

I work at the store after school on some days. I only earn a quarter or two, but it’s worth something to me to feel important. I know at nine I shouldn’t worry about feeling important, but I do. Working. I put the quarter or two that I earn into my bank account at the bank across the street. I’m saving for a way out of this town.

I stock the coolers at the store and can carry two 8-packs of glass bottles under one arm and one 8-pack in the other.  Each day when I walk by the cooler, I check to make sure that everything is stocked up and when someone buys something, I run and replace it right away.  It’s my job.

I am tempted everyday by one thing in the store, Perrier. The smooth green glistening bottle taunts me each time I walk past the cooler door.  I slide open the door, the black rubber on the bottom squeaks and I have to push in while I’m pulling to the right or the door gets stuck. If the Perrier bottle is not facing forward, I turn it so the perfect lettering is facing to the front.  Why we sell Perrier in the store, I don’t know.  I’ve never seen anyone buy it.  Perrier is RICH and beautiful to me, not poor and run down like our town. I have never tasted it, but I bet it tastes clean, like the smell of laundry after hanging on the clothes line.

I can’t stop thinking about Perrier and instead of saving for it, which would take months of work at the store, I decide that I can steal it faster than I can save for it.

I know it is wrong to steal, but my brother Patrick does it and he doesn’t seem to ever get in trouble for it. I will only do it once, I promise myself. Only once.

I keep watch for anyone coming down the aisle by the cooler. I’m nervous and I think this is why bad things happen when people steal. They get too nervous and mess up, but I can’t stop my nerves from making me shift around – left foot, right foot – my heart racing.

There are customers up front talking to old Mr. Hambone, who drinks Seagram’s Seven from a paper cup all day long. If I hurry I can run out while they are distracting him.

I slide open the door, pull down one bottle and put it up under my shirt and hold my arm against my side as hard as I can to keep it under cover. I run out of the store, down Avon street, legs and arms pumping, breathing short and quick, sprinting down the sidewalk as fast as I can. I run all the way to the library, around the back where there is a fenced in electrical cage. I sit down in the grass and hold the cool bottle against my face. Sweat dripping, heart racing. I know someone is going to catch me. I want to taste the sweet taste of Perrier, but I am scared. My nerves are jumpy, jumpy and the bottle now feels hot and bad. My belly has the I’ve done something terrible feeling.

I stand up and throw the bottle over the fence, which is locked, with barbed wire along the top.

I stare through the fence, longing for Perrier. Sad.

It was quite a few years before I could afford Perrier and when I finally tried it, I fell in love again – not just with the packaging, but with Perrier. The cool crisp mineral taste. I was hooked.

I thought Perrier would make me feel rich – but realized it wouldn’t if I didn’t get it in a way that felt good to me. Why I learned that lesson and some people keep stealing, I’ll never know, but I’m grateful to have learned it early.

I still don’t know why I had it in my head that Perrier was so good, I laugh at my nine-year-old self, but realize she’s still here with me today. Loving Perrier.  And it is – GOOD.


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.      

~July 1974~

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.

Five times.

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? 




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.