Becoming a Westerner

A few years ago, when I first realized I had become a Westerner, I was driving east on the dirt section of Park County Road 5, with Colorado’s Weston Pass in my rear view and Pikes Peak a distant wedge of white in the blue sky. Spring grass outlined an oval pond, and an empty paddock leaned into a small hill. Lucinda Williams crooned through the car speaker: “Come out West and see, the best that it could be.” I joined my voice with her drawl, vowels lengthening like snakes uncurling in the sun: “I know you won’t stay permanently, but come out West and see.” I didn’t know anything about permanence when I was eighteen, but I came to Denver from Florida on a one-way airline ticket.

Born in the nation’s capital, I spent my first fourteen years in a near-suburb of DC. I listened to my mother speak her native Icelandic, a language I never learned, while navigating the mystifying terrain of race in 1970’s America. I was sometimes the white girl on the outside of the circle in a mostly black neighborhood, and I was also the child of an immigrant who saw Americans as others. She might say, conspiratorially, American girls are so skinny or Americans don’t care about fashion or Americans don’t even know where Iceland is. She probably didn’t say, You belong here or You will find your place one day. But my confusion about my identity is my own, a byproduct less of my background, perhaps, than of my anxious tendency to hold myself apart from people and from communities I love, then grieve my sense of wounded exclusion.

I’ve never been one thing all the way, not the white girl I look like, not the American I sound like, and not the sane woman I impersonate. Where are you from? people ask when I meet them. My answer depends on who’s asking.  I grew up in  DC but my mother was from Iceland, I tell someone with a foreign accent. I grew up in DC but went to high school in Florida, I tell black folks, in part to explain how my voice automatically slows in their presence, dropping from a northern white cadence to the softer, warmer tone I associate with America’s south. In grammar school, I was immersed in African American English. My mother’s immigration from Iceland–and our family’s move to the DC suburbs–coincided with a wave of the Great Migration north from Jim Crow south. As a child I spoke, as my Uncle George pointed out, with a “black accent.” It is a way of speaking that feels both more natural and less foreign than my mother’s native language.

Claiming a definite geographic home, though, has never felt natural. But thirty years after moving to Denver, on a strip of road as familiar to me as the back of my hand, I suddenly stopped feeling like a visitor to the American west. My life in Denver expanded from loneliness in my late teens to college and love, then to a joint mortgage and co-parenting. Twenty-one years ago, when I was pregnant with our third son, we watched in awe with my parents as the logs of our Fairplay cabin were lifted into place over a concrete foundation that had washed out the summer before. Home is in the memories I have here, and home is the peacefulness of the mountains that has slowly smoothed out the rough edges of my chronic unbelonging.

As Lucinda and I sang, It’s over, I know it, but I can’t let go, I turned right at Fairplay’s only stoplight, then parked under the rodeo logo of Prather’s Market. The building’s brown cinder block walls soaked up meager spring warmth as I squinted into the sunlight beaming down from Mount Democrat. It took a long time for me to learn the names of some of these  peaks: Sheep Mountain, Mount Sherman, alpine crests in the shape of praying hands.

When my shopping  was done, I set plastic grocery bags into the back of my red Subaru wagon, its doors scratched by mountain bikes and ski poles. My hair hung loose around my face, and the wind lifted my cotton scarf while I loaded the last of my provisions.

As I plunked a jug of drinking water behind my passenger’s seat, a blue convertible BMW purred up alongside me, the top thrown open to the warming day. A white guy in a baseball cap, wearing an expensive-looking casual shirt. Speaking with the authority of the Pope saying mass, he told me, I saw a sign about a barbecue as I drove into town. The man’s confident bearing belied his confusion about what to do, where to go next. Was he asking me for directions?

I don’t know anything about that barbecue, I told him. You might ask in Prather’s. I bet they know where it is. I nodded with my chin toward the door behind him. He glanced briefly at the entrance, then turned back to me, hesitant. Nah, I’ll just drive around some more. As he zoomed off in his shiny toy, I found myself grinning from ear to ear. I was amused by the almost endearing arrogance of the Beemer guy, but my glee had a different source. As I got back in my car, I said aloud, I do believe I was mistaken for a local. Smiling in the sun-warmed driver’s seat, I turned on Marvin Gaye and headed back home, not north to Denver, but south, home to our cabin.

img_2227
Dad’s last visit to the cabin, circa 2008, next to the husband and the windows they framed out together.

Doing Errands

Daddy’s strong hands lifted me gently in the air and landed me on a bar stool. Bright morning light gleamed off the polished floor boards of his favorite pub near our home in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Bubbles rose through the pink-tinged soda of my Shirley Temple, served to me in a tall, thick-bottomed glass. The smiling bartender pierced three red cherries and a thin slice of orange onto a wooden pick. He balanced them over the rim of my glass, then plunked down a small bowl of peanuts between my fancy drink and my father’s tall beer.

On those pre-school pub mornings–also called “doing errands”–my father taught me about water tension. He asked the bartender for two small glasses of water, then slowly over-filled one with the other.  See, he told me, the container can hold more liquid than the space inside it. It pulls on itself to keep from spilling over!  I watched, transfixed, as water rose above the rim, holding onto itself in a rounded puff. But one more drop broke the surface tension, sending the liquid down the side of glass and onto the shiny wooden bar.

Another day, Daddy showed me how to create air pressure inside a plastic straw by holding my finger at the top and pushing the straw down into my drink. When I let go, the pink concoction lifted high into the straw, above the horizon of the glass. I watched bubbles sit inside the clear tube, then lifted my finger and let them fall. I soon became adept at lifting Shirley temple sips to my mouth in straw lines while my father savored his glass of beer.

On our morning outings, he piloted the off-white station wagon with its back seat littered with paper grocery bags and magazines. I sat at next to him, alert to our next adventure. He tuned his radio to a country station and laughed as he sang along, Work your fingers to the bone, and what do you get? Bony fingers, bony fingers!  Once, we stopped to save a box turtle trying to cross Suitland Parkway, that fast-moving pavement between stands of deep Maryland woods. We often pulled over to pick up trash that had been left along Oxen Run, stashing aluminum cans in the way back to take home and mash flat with a brick. After we stuffed the compacted circles into a bag for recycling, we swept reddish clay dust off of the driveway.

I watched my father tap small white chunks of old mortar off scavenged bricks, and I helped him pile the best ones in the back yard. In a wheelbarrow, we combined water with gray cement mix, then used a hoe and a trowel to chop it into a smooth goo that smelled like summer happiness.  As Daddy slopped wet concrete into a smooth layer on top of one brick, I waited with the next one in my hand. Restlessness sent me running along the connected back yards of our neighborhood, but when I returned, the base of a barbecue grill had taken shape under his hands.

When the kitchen sink sprang a leak, I shone a flashlight beam on the suspect pipe and handed Daddy a rag, then a wrench. He pulled his head out from under the sink and sat back on the checkered tile floor to consider his next step, sending me to fetch him a can of Stroh’s from the basement fridge. If a bathroom door hinge or a broken dresser handle had lost a screw, we drove to the hardware store in the Hillcrest Heights Shopping Center, a few doors down from the store-front library. We scrutinized various replacements, pulling out small plastic drawers until we found a screw with just the right size and shape and pointiness to hold together what had come apart. The man behind the counter put our treasures into a small envelope that he traded for a rumpled bill from Daddy’s wallet. As we stepped out of the door hand in hand, the chime of a bell silvered the air above our heads.

img_2376
Dad in a later era, doing work at the Indiana Dunes

Mother Africa

In the warm heart of Africa, I crossed a concrete bridge linking tarmac to terminal as tropical sunshine blazed away an end of rainy season drizzle. Fronds of palm leaves and trumpets of yellow blooms curled in the warm breeze, and a tiny bird bedecked in scarlet plumes flitted through a patch of lush green.

yellow bloomsThis continent that birthed the human race so long ago is now home to my niece, Rachel, who works as a researcher for one of the many non-governmental organizations in Lilongwe, Malawi. When she arrived to pick me up at the airport, I greeted her in Chichewa: Moni. Muli Bwanji? I have practiced the simple Hello, how are you? many times on the plane, but these short phrases don’t stay in my travel-soaked brain for long.

Rachel’s long brown hair was twisted up into a ponytail bun, and she moved gracefully as a gazelle as she loaded my bags into a borrowed car. In her, I see my sister’s keen intelligence shine out from a darker version of my own mother’s eyes. But most obvious to me in my niece are her dignified beauty and her distinct laugh, a ha ha reminiscent of all her female relatives. In Africa, Rachel introduces me as her “little mother,” sister of her own mother. For twelve days, the topic of motherhood weaved through our conversations like a golden thread.

The day after I arrived, Rachel and I took a three-hour bus-ride across the border to the town of Chipata, in Zambia, where she worked for several months before going to Malawi. Rachel spoke four languages in one short taxi ride, chatting in Hebrew on her cell phone, speaking English to me, then switching from Malawian Chichewa to the Zambia borderclosely related Nyanja dialect. My polyglot niece doesn’t get to practice her French, Spanish, or Russian very often while living and working in Africa. I, however, thanked a Zambian immigration officer by saying Gracias, and I greeted Rachel in the morning as I do my sons at home, in my mother’s Icelandic: Godan daginn allan daginn. It means “good morning, all day,” but Rachel gave me a quizzical look in response.

We hired a shared car to drive us to our two-day safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa Park. Shared cars work like this: you agree to a price before departure to get to your destination. Then along the way, the driver picks up other passengers or cargo as he is able, and makes short detours for drop-offs. Driver profit and efficiency maximized, traveler hurry and seat belt expectations minimized.

Outside one village, a young teen girl and a toddler approached our car. The older girl held a small clacking chicken by its wings and tucked it into the trunk between my suitcase and a bag of rice.  After tucking the little one next to me, the older girl perched next to the window, face-forward and intent on the road. She wore a brightly patterned traditional wrap over a pink t-shirt. The toddler looked up at my foreign face in wide-eyed fright over and over, her dark eyes filling with tears. After a several miles, I stopped resisting my maternal instinct and briefly cupped her small head in my palm. She slowly let her head fall to the side in sleep. I wished the petite teen to be her sister, but I knew she was her very young mother, unlikely to be educated, and quite likely to suffer during Zambia’s “hunger season,” a hard time that lands almost every year here before the harvest. Little mother, indeed.

***

At the Marula Lodge, hippos pop their heads out of the Luangwa river, open their eyes to inhale, then flap their ears before plunking under again. I spend my writing time wishing I could slumber all day like they do under the cool river water, coming up for a hippo riverquick breath to peek at the world and then swim-doze the day away. Mesmerized by the adorable ear-flapping, I can’t look away. My laptop goes into sleep mode. At this point in the trip, I am the dependent one, following my niece around like a baby duck to mooch off of her WiFi hot spot and translation skills. Rachel makes me coffee and cooks me oatmeal before she opens her computer and starts running data sets for her project–actually working–as I gaze at the fast-flowing river.

Rachel and I join an evening safari drive. We bounce along a track in the lush game reserve, sighting grazing zebras and an enormous pond ornamented from end to end with snow-white water lilies. A small herd of elephants enjoying dinner become annoyed by the stink of our guide’s Land Rover. Matriarch and child use their ears as protest Elephantsflags, first the mother, then the imitating baby waving their ears in synchronized tempo before ambling away to snack a different set of shrubs. I surprise myself by wanting to cry. The elephants are so wild and intelligent, so distinctly and fiercely familial.

As the sun skimmed the horizon, our small group stood by the river bank in red-gold light as yet more hippos snorted laughter and growled yawns in picture-postcard poses. For two years, during one of her father’s diplomatic postings, Rachel and her family lived in Zimbabwe. On a camping trip in Africa, when she was four, the young adventurer resisted her parents’ rule not to explore outside their family’s tent, where hyenas roamed.

My parents visited Rachel’s family in Harare during the grace-filled years of my mother’s sobriety, when both of my parents were healthy and eager for adventure. Rachel tells me, I remember Amma playing the pumpkin pie game with me every night. I had pajamas with a pumpkin pattern printed on them, and Amma had those long sparkly fingernails. She would pretend to scoop out pumpkin from my pj’s, then mash it into a pie and bake it. Rachel was enthralled by this game. My mother tapped the “pie” into a pretend oven to bake, then they giggled together about their pumpkin pie feast. As a young version of my mother’s laugh echoed around us, I tasted the sweetness of their time together.

November

Note: Posting from Malawi last week with limited data was only semi-successful, so here–in a repeat for some of you–is “November”. And more to come soon about my trip to Mother Africa….  Thanks for reading, subscribing, and commenting!

Mamma stands in the November kitchen on slippered feet, her green robe loosely belted over a nightgown. Clutching her stomach, she leans over the counter between the stainless-steel sink and the humming refrigerator. She waits for the pain to stop, a grimace twisting her face like a storm captured in a photograph. My sister and I sit at the table waiting for her to straighten up and pour orange juice into our favorite glasses. But she keeps her back to us, doesn’t say a word. In another minute, she heaves a deep breath and walks gingerly down the hallway back to bed, one hand still holding her middle. She is sick, again. It is 1970.

In the tired light of not-summer, I bring Mamma milk in bed. She needs it to calm her stomach, and my five-year-old hands carry it carefully up the hallway. I want to make her better. She whispers to me, Just this much, and touches her finger a quarter of the way up a small glass.  Just this much. I won’t spill, and the milk will help, I know. I watch her sip one slow sip and set the cup on her bedside table. I tiptoe out of her dark bedroom, turning the door handle quietly as she sighs onto her pillow.

Another damp fall day, we put on our coats and get into Mamma’s brown Chevy. She drives us to the Group Health building, not far across the invisible line dividing our neighborhood in Maryland from the city of Washington, DC.  I decide to be a nurse when I grow up, even after I watch a nurse push a small tube up into my mother’s nose, sliding it down the back of her throat, then into her rebellious belly. They need to take some “stomach juice” out to see why she throws up so much, why she hurts all the time. My mother gags as the tube snakes low, then dabs her eyes and tries to smile at me. I feel the intrusion as if into my own throat, and I cringe at the scratches behind my nostrils. Soon, murky liquid lifts up through the miniature hose, coming out from a place where things should only go in. The reversal is disturbing, but I become alert. I am not bored. I will be a nurse someday. I will master this.

The spring that I am fourteen, my father takes early retirement from his job at the Weather Bureau. We are moving to Florida. Mamma decides to have the surgery her doctors have told her will end the acidic battle her digestion wages with itself. They tell her she will be well in two weeks.

A surgeon’s knife cuts out Mamma’s ulcers and most of her stomach. Soon, fevers push tiny drops of sweat onto her upper lip. She lies wordless in the hospital as her weakened body produces a parade of infections. One hundred nights she sleeps alone in that bed with metal rails. After a second stomach surgery, her left eye swells with bacteria. Another surgeon pierces that delicate orb with a needle to relieve the pressure behind my mother’s hazel iris.

I sit with her long days that summer, watching her slack face as she dozes. I open The Washington Post and entertain her with advice from Ann Landers.  Out of a hole next to my mother’s belly button, a tube drains her stomach wound—I have seen this brown-tinged liquid before. When her nurse comes to change the bandage, I go downstairs and spoon Dannon blueberry yogurt into my mouth from the hospital cafeteria vending machine. The days become mechanical and remote. In the afternoon, a doctor’s scowl lands on my mother’s impassive face. She looks away from him, indifferent, and I feel the end in her. I’ve had enough of nurses and hospitals. I just want my mother back.

But it’s her nurses who tell the story later, how Mamma shook her head in a silent No when they tried to tempt her appetite back with offers of hamburgers, of chocolate, of beer. Then, one Sunday morning in September, she wakes up asking for food, newly able to lift her head from the pillow. She wants her hair washed. The staff brings cake and balloons when she is discharged, everyone so relieved at her sudden desire to live.

Soon, my mother comes home to our new house on the Pinellas coast of Florida, a house my father bought that summer, one that she has never seen. A small kidney-shaped swimming pool glimmers in the yard, and armadillos roam in nearby Hammock Park. Without her, my sister and I have started high school in this foreign-feeling place where the sun stays high and warm, even in the fall. My mother comes home weighing ninety pounds and pale as blank paper, smiling as she leans on my father’s arm. She comes home and learns how to eat again with her fragment of post-surgery stomach. Sitting on the edge of my new bed, she brushes my hair off of my forehead and tells me not to worry about only getting A’s in my classes. In that small house with no downstairs, I slowly get used to hearing her voice again.

mom and dad c 82
Florida circa 1982

M&M’s

Even when I’m not hungry, I walk my little girl body around the quiet house, sneaking candy. I grab the long handle of the fridge door and pull, pushing my feet hard onto the slippery tile floor. I yank until my fingertips hurt, until the magnetic strip creaks away from its mate and the door whooshes open. Disappointing containers of leftover cabbage and boiled potatoes are at my eye level, and above them sits a half empty jug of skim milk. But on my right, in the door shelf, gleams an open bag of M&M’s. Shapes I know to be letters adorn the outside of the black sack, while inside wait shiny blues and vivid greens and happy yellows. When I push my hand into the bag, the candies jangle like the notes of a song. I lift the bright circles up and push them into my mouth.

Cheeks bulging, I take another fistful, less careful to be quiet on this second foray into badness. My brain squeezes with fear. Can someone behind a closed door or down the long staircase hear the candy grinding between my teeth? I close the tall door of the fridge and step into the dining room, hiding in the folds of the curtain fabric. Shells of cold M&M’s break under my teeth and press sharp points onto my tongue. Soon, the colors melt into pure chocolate softness. As I chew, my empty hand un-clenches its sticky grip on itself. I stare at the colorful pattern of candy prints on my palm as my tongue absorbs the shock of sugar. A clock ticks. The back of my throat aches.

I step out of my hiding place and open the fridge again. My hand dives low for M&M’s, but the bag is almost empty.  I leave the last few candies as a suggestion that I didn’t eat so many, that maybe it wasn’t me. But the next morning, that bag is gone, never to appear in the fridge door again. A few days later, my mother snips open the corner of a new bag and puts it in the high cupboard, above the stove where she thinks I can’t climb. I learn to pull a heavy chair over and balance on the margins of the turquoise stove when the burners are cool. She moves the M&M bag again, but I find it, eventually, in her top dresser drawer, next to gauzy scarves and plastic orbs of L’eggs pantyhose. I plunder what she hides, my heart hammering in my chest.

I sneak. I risk for sweetness.

Before our parents go out to a party, after we’ve eaten the crusts of our chicken pot pies and drunk our glasses of milk, Mamma stands in her high heels and Mom and dad partycounts out M&M’s for me and my sister. We get fifteen each, in small metal cups meant to hold soft boiled eggs. I have polished Daddy’s black shoes until they shine. They sit on a section of newspaper by the kitchen door, waiting. Save your M&M’s, Mamma says, before our parents drive off into the evening. Make them last a long time!

Curled like commas, my sister and I face each other on Mamma and Daddy’s big bed, watching TV. We sort our candy into colors and compete over who can save hers longest. Negotiating a trade, we argue about the brown ones, so plentiful, and whether they taste as good as the rare green ones do. The night gets longer and later. I let the candies rest on my tongue, one at a time, until their hard cases melt away.

We have worked our way through Saturday night TV all the way to Perry Mason, whose serious face surprises me every time that he confronts a conniving murderer on the witness stand, thus freeing his unjustly accused client. Perry MasonAfter the local news, Rod Sterling’s voice describes the time I dread: The Twilight Zone. I am sleepy, but I won’t go into our room alone, so I put a pillow over my head and drift off. I don’t wake up when my father carries me to my bed.

Thirty years later–as a grown woman with children of my own– I visit my parents in Florida and quietly search my mother’s house for sugar. I plunder the M&M’s again, finding the magical black bag in the drawer of the sideboard in her dining room. I eat M&M’s until nausea and self-hatred volley a tennis ball in my adult body, back and forth, back and forth. All I can do is sit still long enough for self-hatred to win. Then I go back for more candy.

How Dare You?!

snail bag

Before I had the nerve to call myself a writer, I spent two years coloring big paper bags, hour after hour, bag after bag. These brightly festooned delivery bags belonged to Project Angel Heart, and were later filled with a week’s worth of lunches for folks living with life challenging illness. They served a different purpose for me–coloring those bags both highlighted and neutralized the repetitive self-accusation: “You’re not an artist! How dare you think you are!”  That self-hating voice—timeless, shrill, malignant—halted my creative self-expression for years. But as I colored, its harsh alarms about the self-indulgent absurdity of making art became more recognizable and less impactful day by day. “How dare you?!”  became a signal that I was onto something, an invitation to enjoy making things.

After I left my full-time job, my empty calendar was an intoxicant, and my future work life was a big question mark. Waiting for direction or inspiration, I would pull a blank bag out from under the couch, grab my container of rainbow sharpees with their alluring chemical scent, and shape a heart onto brown paper, then mark a swirl through it, coloring in the curved sections with alternating blues and greens. Stars, snowflakes and layered dot patterns emerged. I’d spend five minutes or several hours per bag, then stash them again under the couch.

Peace bag

Twice a month, I pulled out all the bags I’d colored and stack my favorites on top. Over time, circles became rounder and flowers lovelier as my hand became surer. Progress wasn’t measured by number of bags completed or by quality of design, but by something new—the inherent perfection in the colors themselves. I spent peaceful hours coloring while I waited for my high schooler to come home, or as I listened to the snores of my decrepit poodle. Letting things get done while holding still.

But putting color on those bags, over and over, day after day, also calmed my creativity demons. Angel Heart clients could assume that my scribbled over “mistake” was the work of a gifted three-year-old. There was no obvious practical value to the bags being decorated, none besides brightness and color themselves. Beauty for beauty’s sake.

After a year or two of coloring, I started wanting words. I had stopped writing almost completely for a decade, but gradually, infrequent bursts of words landed onto the pages of a dusty old notebook. More and more, I wanted to give voice to some of my mother’s stories and possibly rediscover my own. This creative urge, though, needed help facing up to the inner accusation that I was self-indulgent and arrogant to think of myself as a writer. How dare you?!

So I put my fright in my pocket and took it with me to a class at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a thriving community of “literary types” that is housed in a beautiful Victorian just off Colfax Avenue. The class was called “Gotta Start Somewhere.” I would not have registered for the class had the teacher’s name been anything but Joy. Joy has the empathetic heart of a poet who is also a therapist. For many months, she coached me as I cried over tangled paragraphs, and she gently alerted me when a piece of writing was glaringly self-enamored. There’s Joy my wonderful teacher, and there is also the energy of joy itself, the celebration inherent in creative expression. Writing is difficult, but these days I often look forward to it like the scent of the first spring daffodil.

Early on, after Joy read an exercise that I wrote for her about self-criticism, she told me:  Jenny-Lynn, this voice is not just self-criticism. It’s self-contempt. That self-contempt hasn’t gone away–my inner approval ratings often hover in the single digits. Yet here I sit with ten blog posts published and several imperfect essays out to magazine editors, all while calling myself a writer. I take classes, keep writing hours, and have inspiring, generous  writer friends. And those bags? I stopped coloring them six months ago. But I admire their bright cheer when I deliver meals. And I thank the angels every day that I get to make things, to form words on the page, to dare to create.

Bag on laptop
Notice the laptop underneath this one!

Reach Joy here: https://www.joyrouliersawyer.com/

And the Lighthouse here: https://www.lighthousewriters.org/