I am ten and sitting quietly having learned the reality of the physical threat implied in my stepfather’s words that, ” Children should be seen and not heard. ” Safe for the moment and out of reach of the driver, I choose my side of the car because I have learned that although my mother’s hands are capable of causing physical pain, they are attached to arms too short to reach me if I stay pressed close to the door.
My sister claims her regular space on the right side of the backseat in the only car we own and I am surprised when my mother turns slightly and reaches back from the passenger seat to give me a paperback copy of a book I will come to treasure. Setting out on a long car trip once again, moving as we have so many times before, it doesn’t take more than a page or two for me to disappear into Judy’s Journey, a story published in 1947 that reveals what it’s like to be ten year-old Judy, the daughter of a migrant farm worker.
Some books stay with you all your life and even if you no longer have the book in your hand, the story never leaves you. I saved my copy of Judy’s Journey after our move from California when I was partway through my fifth year of school. Back home again in Georgia where I’d been born, I found myself confused by many of my subjects as the American school curriculum varied from the east to west coast.
While I may have struggled through some of my classes, I excelled at reading and lost myself in the school library and books wherever I could find them. Beaten into silent submission at home through both psychological and physical blows, I longed for the safety of someone else’s life and found them in books about other children.
My mother came from a family of readers and writers, and books were always among the gifts I received from my extended family on birthdays and at Christmas. I had acquired a good number of them by the time I was able to escape from my mother’s house at fourteen when I made my last childhood move into safety of my dad and stepmother’s home.
My mother would not allow me to take my books and they were left behind with my childhood things after she decided that I could only take my clothing and gifts that my father had given me.
I remember how sad I felt seeing my fourteen years of living packed into only two or three boxes when they arrived by bus a few weeks later.
My books from childhood were marked as mine by my name written in varying degrees of penmanship. Some had Elizabeth in the adult script of my grandparents and great-aunt, while others were identified by a more childish scrawl and dated from when I first began to write my name.
With two sisters still with my mother, my books bypassed my sister Margaret who at twelve was too old to be interested in many of them and went straight into the hands of my four-year old sister Pam who later claimed them completely by scratching through my name and adding her own. It would be many years before I saw my mother, my sisters, or my books again.
Judy’s Journey disappeared somewhere along the way like many other things from my past, but the memory of the story made me talk about it at times and one Christmas, I found a used copy under the tree, a gift from a friend who understood its significance.
I didn’t begin this post to write about this topic. I’d intended to carry on from yesterday’s post about books and libraries before it took off in its own direction. Memories are like a train with multiple destinations and today’s post is an example of all the directions one story can go especially when writing about it.
John came into my studio space about a week ago and said that he thought I needed to write my story. I told him that memoirs were filling the shelves of bookstores everywhere and people were beginning to write disparaging reviews about those who spilled their secrets in a book for all to see. I added that there were many stories out there like mine and why add one more to the mix. I said I was bored with it most days and imagined others might be as well.
I went on to say that there were parts he did not know and more still that the people involved might not want shared, but he reminded me that it is my story and said quietly that he thought it would be good for me, and to think first about myself in the writing process and not worry about the rest.
It’s always bothered me seeing my name replaced in books that had been mine, so much so that I don’t have those books with me anymore. I offered them to my daughter in case she has children one day, although she might rather have new books than those with such a sad history. I mean really, how would she explain that to her children …
I wondered what my sister Pam thought as she was too young to remember me when I left. Did they bother to explain the name already in the books or did they say, ” Just scratch it out and put your own in there.”
I thought about what my sister Margaret said about how they never said my name in the house after I left, how my mother and stepfather if pressed by situation would only refer to me as, ” The one who left,” which made me sad on earlier reflection, but now feels more like the name you might give warrior who was brave enough to leave on a vision quest.
As to healing through writing my story, I thought I had done most of that by talking with two remarkable women I’ve mentioned before, but perhaps writing my story rather than telling it might be a good next step whether anyone ever reads it but me.
Time now for she who has been called, ” The One Who Left ” to go out for some sunshine and exercise. Having worked on the past a good bit today, it’s time now to work on my body.