Nursing my daughter in the first slow months at home, carrying her tiny form strapped to my chest, I was tumbled back in time. Outside, the noise of the city was muffled by heavy shades at the windows, piano music on the CD player, the soft wheezing of two overweight cats. My husband, back at work, was gone until evening. Alone with me, my daughter slept, cried, nursed, fell back to sleep and then woke again, ravenous, crying for the breast. Her skin had the crinkly softness of petals. Her tongue was wet and hot like a cat’s. Her fingernails scratched against my cheek like tiny claws. We breathed together, my daughter panting softly. There was no world beyond the two of us.
And then, the sounds, faint but distinct: voices, footsteps, a snatch of song. But the CD player had clicked off; the neighbors were gone, the house was quiet. I thought at first that my mind was drifting back to a novel I had begun writing before my daughter was born, to the sounds of the family stories woven within it. My novel teemed with noise: the calypso din of a backyard limbo party, which the nine year-old narrator crashes, nude; the resonating crack of a child’s toy hammer against the keys of an old Chickering piano (the youngest child, in a rage); the determined crunch of tires over gravel as a station wagon, a young mother gripping the wheel, rolls out of a driveway for the last time. And throughout every scene, a torrent of speech — these were voluble characters, talkers and fighters, people who couldn’t keep quiet.
But as I tuned into the voices that mumbled in my ears, I began to suspect. These were not my characters speaking, not the imaginary beings of fiction. I was hearing something else. One afternoon, the something else burst through. A murmuring in my head that seemed to spread throughout my body, as if my body itself were trying to speak. I listened, wondering. My cheeks began a story of brisk, hot reprimands. My arms told another, of a dark giant pulling me out of a hiding place; my back told another still. These were not scenes from imaginary stories. These were the real memories buried beneath my skin, the clay with which I created the world of my fiction, hands muddy, smelling of dark river and earth.
It was one thing to plunge into this territory alone, searching for stories, as I had done before my daughter was born. But I had a baby now, who needed a world of sunlight and air, lullabies instead of shouts. I didn’t think I was ready to go back — either to writing or to the murky landscape of childhood that gave rise to it.
Too late. Listen, my body commanded. Listen.
I closed my eyes; there was nowhere to go. My sleeping baby lay beside me, diaper freshly changed, milk trickling from her open mouth and moistening my neck. The old tales quietly resumed, moving from wordless pictures to scenes with voices and flashing faces.
First, a hissing in my ears. Whispering fiercely, my mother drags me out of the church pew, the back of my ruffled dress soaked through. I stumble down the aisle, dribbling a trail behind me. The stained-glass angels have witnessed my wet shame, far more stinging than my mother’s swift gloved hand when we reach the car. A burning, everywhere: I shake my head to stop the sensation. It disappears as I slowly return to the present.
My eyes fall open and rest on my daughter’s face. She stirs, a minuscule freckle twitching at the tip of her nose. I smile, wanting to touch it, and then something tells me: Stop. Remember this.
My old bedroom. Mom, smiling now, is perched next to my pillow. Lightly stroking my arm, she explains that the freckles I dislike so much are kiss marks left by brownies. But what are brownies? Why, fairies, of course, who come into my room at night to pick up my toys. All my freckles are proof: I am the brownies’ favorite.
I lie in the dark remembering, my body covered for a moment with hundreds of tiny soft mouths. I glance at my daughter again; if I knew it wouldn’t wake her, I’d do the same to her, kiss her arms and legs, her tummy and back, soft head and tiny feet, until she, too is marked with love for life.
My eyes close on this thought but sleep doesn’t come, not this day. Instead, more sensations, more stories, streaming by and gathering speed: my shoulders, my spine, my thighs, my feet, until my father, roaring, returns. He bounds up the stairs to the room where my sister and I have just had a noisy pillow fight. We should have been asleep long ago. Daddy will be very angry. Diving under the covers, I watch the door. My father strides through, hand raised high. Sucking in my breath, I mutter a one second prayer: hurry up.
There is more to this story, or there was, but today I receive no punishment. I breathe, and another story rises in its place. A different time, a different bed. A white canopy from 30 years ago arcs over my bed; a matching, lacy bedspread settles over my legs. I lie quietly, too sick to speak, my throat swollen like a frog’s. The frilly bedroom swirls in my fever. Over my head, Daddy’s face appears, blue eyes crinkled with worry, mouth slanting into a crooked smile. He lifts up a thick, rough-skinned hand. Dangling from his fingers is a gold bracelet, glittering in the afternoon light. Its tiny charms wink at me like figures in a dream — a book, a shoe, a rose, a baby piano, a drum, a miniature golden ball. I raise my arm as my father awkwardly slides the bracelet over my wrist.
“Now you’re a princess,” he says. “And princesses get ice cream.” Behind him, on a tray, two scoops of chocolate ice cream glisten in a chipped Minnie Mouse cereal bowl. I sit up and reach for the spoon, my royal bracelet jingling.
I had forgotten that. Remembering only the highlights of hurt, I’d overlooked the moments in which love fumbled for my hand. Could it be an accident that the novel I had worked on for so long before my daughter’s birth omitted these moments, too? The hundreds of pages I’d written pulsed with drama, but the stillness between moments of conflict was lacking, the subtleness of small moments like these. Here, in the deeply ordinary world of the motherbody – sleeping and feeding, breathing and bathing – I discovered a hidden spring of memories that began to tell a more nuanced story of childhood. It was as though a roomful of life-sized dolls with carefully painted expressions had suddenly become flesh and blood, had acquired eyes, ears, teeth, tongues.
In earlier drafts, the adult characters were towering, neglectful, engrossed in their mystifying, grown-up struggles and grief. They looked and sounded like people you might know, if you know a lot of striving-to-be-middle-class, barbecue-throwing, hard-drinking Catholics. But if they were “realistic” before, now they were starting to feel real. People who loved as well as they fought, who had hopes for themselves and their children, who tried, when they could, to do the right thing.
Unbidden, inaccessible by any conscious effort, stories continued to rush up at me through the quiet. When I emerged from the daze of the first few months of motherhood, I started to write them down. Keeping a pad of paper by the bed, I grabbed it when my daughter napped, recording everything in fractured sentences, fragments, jagged blurtings. After I began this half-conscious, dashed-off scribbling, the memories began to break through not just silence, but noise, too.
They came as I waited in line at the deli, maneuvered a stroller through Sunday crowds at the city park, pushed a shopping cart through the fluorescent teeming of a supermarket. They came in line at the ATM machine; they came on the freeway. One June morning: sweating in rush-hour traffic on the 580, baby babbling in the back. Heart thudding wildly as my foot hits the brakes: a spike of adrenaline from nowhere. But “nowhere” turns out to be a place, as well marked in my memory as a street on a yellowed map.
I am six or seven years old, sitting in the back seat of our Vista Cruiser station wagon. My mother is driving. Dad is asleep in the passenger seat. Cars are lined up behind us, waiting at the toll before the bridge. Some honk angrily; others make roaring animal sounds as they creep along. The windows are down and my hand dangles in the hot wind. In the other hand, I’m clutching Lizzie, a rag doll with a green pinafore and dark braids like mine. One minute she’s sitting quietly in my lap, the next she’s gone, out the window and onto the street.
I lean my head out, howling. Arms flailing for my doll. There she is, lying face down inches from a rolling tire — I wail and sob as the cars inch ahead and Lizzie disappears. And then we jerk to a stop; the door flies open and my mother is out on the road. I watch, frozen, as she rushes down the pavement, twisting her way between cars as people shout at her: Lady what are you doing hey hey lady watch out!
I am shouting too, following my mother’s pink dress through the blur of traffic until I lose her and begin to scream. She’s gone, swallowed up by a monstrous metal sea — but then she is running back waving Lizzie in her hand, tossing the doll into my lap as she slides into the front seat and grabs the wheel.
“That was close,” she laughs. My father stirs but does not wake up. The car jolts ahead. “What an adventure for Lizzie!” my mother is saying, fishing in her purse for a dollar. I hold Lizzie tightly against my chest, unable to speak. I don’t have the words to say it. That my mother, who forced me to finish every hated beet on my plate at lunch, who washed my mouth out with soap for using a crude playground word for “number two,” is also my champion, my heroine, my savior. And I won’t have the words for another 30 years, until my own daughter holds up a stuffed toy to the window (a hippo, wearing a green shirt), and I remember.
These flashbacks — I can’t think of a better word for them — formed a parallel history, brighter than the narrative of darkness I’d carried with me into adulthood. The child I once was did know affection and kindness alongside their opposites, small acts of love like cherries in winter. Only moments, perhaps, but as real as the rest of it. These were the moments I wanted to capture not just as an individual soul, remembering, but as a writer.
In my new novel, a young woman plays piano in a hotel lounge, has a love affair with the wrong person, travels to a remote outpost in Canada, discovers both cruelty and kindness in the world, grows up. Her life is shaped by her past, but the past is only part of the story. The characters speaking to me today are people I don’t know as well, people who reveal themselves to me as I write. Just as, every day, the child whose birth changed my body and my life reveals another facet of the world, hands me something astonishing — and beautifully ordinary — to make into story.