No one ever knows where to start these things. Memoirs. There are so many of them. I just finished reading Maya Angelou’s, Why The Caged Bird Sings and was, of course, impressed. I suppose you need to start at the beginning and just work on individual snapshots of memory and hope the entire thing comes together to form some sort of coherent whole. Something never started is never finished, is it?
I was remembering my life over the last twenty some odd years. Washing clothes in the bathtub. Wading through knee deep water to hang them on the clothesline because our trailer was situated in a flood zone and it had been raining for three days. We used to have to pull the car all the way to the front door and step out on the steps - the water would come in the car. That was a delightful place to live. And then how we put the kids cribs in our bedroom at one end of the trailer and we all slept in that tiny little room with hardly any room to walk around the beds because we only owned one little space heater. It is a miracle we didn’t burn the place down.
And then there was the time, when I left Gary the first time, that I lived on hot dogs and yellow rice. It was wonderful when someone at work would buy me lunch because I got to eat a real meal. Plus side to that was that I lost about 40 lbs. When my friend went through her divorce she would accept invitations from men for dinner so that she could eat. As hungry as she was, she would only eat a quarter of the meal and take the rest home so that she could eat from it for one or two more meals. I think she may have slept with some of those men for those meals. That is hunger. That is poor. Even now, I live in fear of the next empty wallet stage. It always comes. There are no savings. There is nothing to sell or pawn. It is a day to day existence. And even so, I count myself lucky. Because there are so many others who don’t even have that.
I - painfully - remember a time when this woman in Port St. Lucie called me white trash. This was as I sat in my beat up Datsun station wagon with my kids in the car. The woman was angry with me because I had dared to confront her regarding her hateful little child who was beating up little kids on the playground. I guess it made her feel better to call me that. But the sting of it never left me. Honestly, anyone that would have the intelligence to call someone else that, IS that. I knew it then and I know it now. But it hurt nonetheless. I doubt that woman even graduated high school. I wonder what ever happened to her. Her daughter’s name was Stormy. Can you imagine naming your child that?? And she called me...well, never mind.
So, poor is all relative. My sister knows what poor is. Maybe that is why she is so upset. to have built her life up so high and away from ‘poor’ and then to feel like she is descending into it again. Yes, that would upset me also. I never got away from the word so I am not afraid of entering it again - I have been through enough of it to know that I will survive and that there is no shame in it.
In the beginning….
We lived on Florida Mango Street, a typical street of suburban houses that all looked the same. Don’t ask me the year we moved there – midsixties somewhere. A place of backyard barbecues, cookie baking housewives, and mammoth cars of various pastel colors. Everything was pastel – the houses, the cars, and the women. My world was a swirl of muted pinks, blues, greens, and yellows. We had two concrete swans that stood sentinel watch at the front door. The driveway was a half moon. The back yard stretched for an eternity in my child’s eye, muted green grasses waving invitingly and daring my father to take out the mower and slice paths through the tangles. Which he did from time to time, sometimes waiting for the grass to reach a height of almost out of control. A metaphor for our lives, for life in general, out of control.
Daddy would plod along in long strides pushing the mower through the overgrown field of grass while we trooped along behind him in the paths he made. The towers of grass on either side of us formed the walls of a maze and it was our job to follow our leader while he led us to safety. I was always depressed when the job was finished and the jungle became just another postage stamp yard like everyone else’s. Common. I never wanted to be common.
I was a baby – the baby. My brother and sister were so close in age that they formed one body with me as the unwanted appendage. They were three and two years older than I was, respectively. I wasn’t supposed to be there. The doctors had informed my mother after the birth of my sister that she could not have any more children. When she discovered me, they told her she would never carry me to term. When she carried me to term, they told her one or both of us would die. My mother never listens to anyone. Five foot two and quite ready to slap you upside the head if you don’t do as she says. We both almost died. I owe my life entirely to my mother’s stubbornness and give the doctors who said I was an impossibility no credit at all. My mother’s will alone brought me into being and has kept me here ever after.
While my siblings might beg to differ, I believe that my mother is the best mother God could ever have created. She loves with the fierceness of a tiger guarding her cubs. No matter that in a few short years she would walk out of the house and leave us to flounder with our wounded father – I know that we were her life, then and always. Mother was Mommy until I reached the age of wisdom around age sixteen. Mommy was born and lived out her entire childhood in Key West, Florida at a time when Key West was just another place to eke out a living. Her ancestors sailed from Spain, to Cuba, to the Bahamas, and then finally settled in Key West. This exodus took several generations. By the time they reached the States they no longer wanted to be Cuban. My grandfather renounced his name and forbade the speaking of Spanish in his household. My mother and her three sisters never learned more than a few words and phrases in their family’s native tongue. As a very young child, her father walked out the door and moved into a house a few blocks over with his mistress. My grandmother suffered from depression, a condition passed down from her mother who was more than depressed, she was mentally ill. So, this is the environment my mother grew up in. Desperately poor, living with a mother and grandmother who hung tenuously to life, her father a few blocks over living prosperously with his new wife and the new wife’s children. But that is another story.
I feel rather silly to be sitting here writing about my life. There is nothing in my life that makes for a good story – no movies from this life. And what I think about my life today may not be what I think about it twenty years from now. This is the problem with autobiography – it is subjective to time, forever changing depending on the moment it is written it down. Surely, I felt very different about it twenty years ago. So, as a matter of course, I will tell you who I am now, so that you might better understand the time in which I write.
A brief physical description. I am five foot ten. Okay, my driver’s license says 5’10” and that is from when I was 15 years old. Now I am really only 5’9”, or so my ex-husband Gary’s surveying rod says – I guess I shrunk with age – still, I prefer to think of myself as 5’10”, if you are going to be a tall woman you may as well be a nice even number. But I digress…I am five foot ten inches tall and (shudder) I weigh 210 lbs. On my frame, this weight just makes me look slightly overweight – I do not look grossly fat. But I hate it nonetheless and battle constantly with my ego over it. Again, I digress…let’s move away from that! I have long golden brown hair. It is golden brown because I put Sun-In in it over the summer. The part on the top is a rich dark brown – my natural color, which I hate. My sister has dark brown hair and it looks good on her. On me it makes me look pale and sickly. So I use the Sun-In and make it lighter. Right now my hair reaches down to my bra strap if I blow-dry it straight. Most of the time it is about an inch shorter than that because it tends to curl up and make waves from crown to tip. This is a messy look however because I have no clue how to deal with it. I don’t like fussing with my hair. Most of the women in my life beg me to cut it, style it, do something with it – but I like the hippie look of it when it is wild and long.
At this moment I am 41 years and 6 months old. That shocks everyone I meet and say I look at least ten years younger. It is the hair probably that makes them think that. My boyfriend, Alex, says that I have nice skin for my age – especially considering that I am a smoker. Whatever the reason for it, they say I look younger than I am. Personally, I think I look 41 years and 6 months old. I certainly feel like it. The year is almost 2004 and I began my mid-life crisis at age 37 years and 4 months. This is where I began to age for real. Actually, the so-called crisis was an event that should have taken place when I was about 18 or so but I missed it somehow. So, as painful as the whole period turned out, it was a necessary evil. I feel 41 years old and that is a good thing, in my opinion. (more on that story later)
I have always been odd, what, in Emily Dickinson’s day they would have called ‘of a delicate nature’. Prone to depression and anxiety, scared of everything. As hateful as this temperament can be, it is conducive to an artist, which is what I would like to think of myself as. Every little thing in the world touches me – a group of clouds wafting overhead can move me to tears. I have radar precision emotions and can tune in to a person’s feelings in a millisecond. Not just tune in but feel their emotions. Empathetic. This is nice for other people, I suppose but for me it is often a nightmare. I live on a crack in the world that is forever shuddering underfoot. It is difficult to explain to other people what this like. Most of the time I don’t even try. But let me give it a shot here.
If a book falls to the floor, the sound of it will reverberate throughout my entire being. It is akin to getting shot, I suppose. Or waking from a dead sleep and finding a stranger with a knife standing over you. If so much as a book falls to the floor, my brain triggers flight or fight. The adrenaline surges through my body with a tremendous force – my heart beats so hard I can hear it perfectly, thumping wildly. I don’t feel I am explaining it well enough. As I said, it is impossible for you to understand unless you have been there. So, I am of a ‘delicate nature’ – prone to a panic attack at any moment. Because of this condition, I don’t do surprises, or horror movies, or roller coasters. I steer clear of anything that makes my adrenaline surge. That includes anything that makes me feel euphoric, which limits my pleasures in life. Not even sex can I enjoy to its fullest. (I do enjoy it but I’m told I could enjoy it more if I allowed myself to..sigh).
Another problem associated with my condition is that I live in absolute fear all of the time. Every second of the day I am fighting back that feeling of fear that creeps and creeps like Kafka’s bug all around me. I get up very early in the morning – always before 7 am, most of the time at 4 or 5. I told someone that I get up that early because once I open my eyes in the morning, I am so elated to have made it to another day that I have to get up right away. This person I told that to said, “What a wonderful way to think of the day! What an optimistic outlook you have!”. Hah! She took it all wrong. I don’t do it because I am optimistic, quite the opposite in fact. I go to bed every night feeling like I am going to die in the night. The feeling I have in the morning is not joy at seeing the new day but simply relief that I didn’t die in the dark night.
As a child, I was prone to depression. I would sit in the middle of my bed and rock to and fro just crying my little eyes out. Most of the time, I would be told to get over it. I didn’t get much sympathy – everyone thought it was just a ploy for attention. People tend to think I am a drama queen, always vying for attention. But this isn’t true. I am just very emotional and I don’t try to hold it in. A shrink once even said that I crave drama in my life. What an idiot. All I have ever wanted is peace in my life, for my emotions to be normal like everyone else’s, for some sense of a balanced existence. Crave drama?? Not in a million years.
There are so many things to write about. How does one even decide where to begin? As I sit here and write, I am overwhelmed with memories. What a huge task this is! I am forever cajoling other people to write their memoirs but now I am seeing why they put it off! And I can’t tell if it is a satisfying experience or not. As I said before, the memories are all skewed by time. Should I write of my childhood from today’s perspective looking backwards? Or should I enter the child’s mind and write from her perspective? What a quandary…
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2006