Thursday, July 9, 2009
My Mother's Attic
I was going to write my first piece about writing spaces and how one carves them out of more than just the physical world. I took a cool photo of my own desk, photoshopped it and started thinking about what I had to say on the subject in free moments while working a production job.
Then my mother died.
So writing about spaces comes later. Instead I’m going to write about my mom and her writing. People often ask writers where they get their ideas, but seldom where they get their ability, the thing that makes them a writer. Over the years, I’ve realized mine largely comes from my mother.
While starting the sad task of emptying her last home with my youngest sister and her two daughters, we found a stack of mom’s old notebooks. One was from her youth, a diary I’d found on one of my frequent forays into my grandmother’s attic in Queens. As the gay son I was the family’s self-appointed archivist, digging through what had been my grandmother’s attic when I was a child, my mother’s by the time I left home after college.
Periodically I’d bring down “treasures” like my grandmother’s crouching black ceramic panther lamp, or the brass hanging lamp my Air Force dad bought for my mom on a mission to Morocco, and get permission to cart them home to my place for “safe-keeping.”
One day I’d found a small black six ring black binder of lined pages filled with my mother’s cursive handwriting. I brought it down to show to her -- she must have explained the entries, I don’t remember -- all I know for sure was that she must have kept it since that day, until her last.
The notebook is divided into sections: quotes, records, poems, art, and “Lit.” The address on the first page is 142 West 140 Street, so it was from 1953, just before she joined the Air Force at 19 and met my father. A search on Google Maps’ street view shows me a building that could be the original remodeled with a glass entrance, or new construction over the old. Either way, the building she knew is long gone, as is the world she knew then.
It’s strange to see the romantic musings of that nineteen-year-old now, already showing the dark moody side I didn’t understand until I was a young adult. I recognize a lot of that Hazel in my own teenage years, and my twenties. More than the troubled teenager who ran away from home, I had known the funny, amusingly cynical woman who became a wife and mother but kept writing all her life.
She also read voraciously, and read aloud to my sister Michelle and I when we were young. When we could read for ourselves she’d take us to the library every Saturday to stock up on books for the week. When we had finished ours we’d read hers, and if we didn’t understand them, we asked her questions, raising our reading levels by years. I grew up in a house filled with books and the love of books I have to this day.
She never really tried to get published -- I’d once found a rejected submission pack in the attic for a children’s story called The Pink Unicorn, along with a few character drawings she’d done. My sister found it again while clearing out the house after my mother moved into assisted living. I read the story to mom and her friend Vern earlier this year at her apartment. I didn’t expect her to remember writing it, Alzheimer’s or no Alzheimer’s, but she enjoyed hearing the story, even if it did seem like it was for the first time. I hadn’t read it myself before I read it aloud, and was struck by how well written it was.
The language, the imagery, even the fantastical subject matter, reminded me of my own work, and had an ease of structure and simple poetry I’ve discovered only in my last ten years of writing. By the last line I was teary-eyed and had to pause before I could finish reading it to them. It was sweet and touching, and for the first time I really thought about my mother’s ever-present notebooks and all the college writing classes she audited after retirement. I realized where my writing talent came from, and why my mother had always supported my storytelling, the side of her she saw in me.
I’m glad that before she died my mother knew my first novel was being published, had seen the galleys and the dedication to her and her mother. Glad she knew that I’d finished the second and was working on a third, that the seed she’d planted was bearing fruit.
In her notebook I found a page where she declared her departure from New York, and her fears, as she made the step that would change her life forever. I also found this tone poem, homage to the city she was leaving behind. It’s youthful work, but speaks to me of a distant time and place when her world was on the verge of change, and reveals something of the mind of the girl who grew into the woman who made me the man I am.
My Gray City
And the rains came
To wash the soot swept city.
But the huge smoke stack belched their thick gray waste out
In angry defiance.
The gray birds of the gray city swoop and arc aimlessly
And below me, the cars continue to speed in their never-ending race for time.
My gray city stands majestically,
Beneath the soft gray sky,
And far off in the horizon a bit of gold shines through with
A promise of the day to come.
I smile at the thought of tomorrows.
While I sit in the window in my gown of satin,
And look over my island,
The island of Manhattan.