There is an old adage, “write what you know,” that has been sounding away in my mind. Not that I ever try to write what I don’t know, but sorting out what story is the story to tell, the story that rolls around in my mind, and has, for years, isn’t always a direct line. To coax it into being I thought to set up a new writing area in my bedroom, away from the kitchen and living room, which although might be perfect blogging spots, tend to distract when one needs more concentrated concentration. To aid the process we carried in a table from my grandmother’s summer home stored in the garage attic. This, I reassured my timid self, is a starting point. And with that I started writing.
Chaos felt comfortable. Noise a constant. Comings and goings threaded in and out the open door. That too, an unlocked front door, despite growing neighborhood theft, was our normal. Back door too. How often it was left ajar another normal. We were in motion, on the go, zooming here and there, just like the disorder happening all around our America. There was no question this world was in the midst of vast and unending change and we were being swept along.
My story may have a true beginning, but I am not aware of it yet. I have been halted for seven years since the concept first occurred to me and I drove three long days to arrive in Goose Creek, South Carolina, to find the core. Illusive then, as it is for me this late morning at my writing desk, but no less pressing. Our family was a world of contradictions, not that I knew that then, for I was still padding around in the middle of childhood, but the black and white order shifted into something new each day. A hue more like mud, like the Mississippi after a hard rain, the moving watery expanse cutting across fertile fields formed with the blood of slavery to become a nameless color, while I still followed fairies into the wonderland beyond the fence just beyond my backyard.
If I tell the story chronologically, we would begin in 1963. The year 12 young men dared to publicly burn their draft cards while all the while military expansion in Vietnam grew to 20,000 American personnel and Martin Luther King Jr was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize and Muhammad Ali was hailed the heavyweight champion of the world, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, abolishing legal racial segregation in the United States but far from abolishing racial discrimination. In my New Jersey suburban home the six child was born, he would be the last, and even more importantly the reason for full-time help to be summoned with fervor.
Writing a memoir when one’s memory is spotty and dates aren’t connected does cause me pause. I spent my early years in a daze of make-believe, following my older brothers into their antics until the age divide caused them to turn and demand I find something else to do. Thankfully my two younger siblings were catching up and with them I did have something else to do. And it is here that she arrived.
Arrived like a windstorm. We had been through several nannies before her. They never lasted too long. ‘Hell Raisers’ we were branded. One blotchy-skinned Irish woman left after her first day, swearing and crossing herself at the same time. Mother stood at the door watching her walk out to the waiting yellow cab, my brothers and I looking guiltily out the dining room bay window. We had never heard such foul words, or at least so many all at once, and not while someone crossed their self.
This new one arrived blowing into our house. She brought life and youth and connection to what was transforming our country. She was Motown and Civil Rights, she was Preacher and Irreverence in one package. She was 1964 to her core. She had ridden a string of buses from the South on a hope and a prayer for real. She left segregation and shunning and dreamt about hitting Harlem with flourish and scandal on a Saturday night. She didn’t look back except to place an expensive and well-meaning phone call to those left behind to join her up North.
When she arrived I noticed her skin, wet and slippery, not dried and flaky like the old white nanny we had at first when the last baby came home from the hospital with Mother. She was brown. A rich clean mud mixed with a streak of red clay. She had a glow. There was not a section on her body where fat wasn’t. Her waist thick with excess. Her hands and arms and legs all padded. In my most playful I wanted to bounce and roll on her, but mostly just sit on her lap. My mother, after her sixth, was thin and had no extra padding in her constitution. Besides, my mother moved fast and often sped past me. Coreen stayed.
For the next month I will write, drink tea, write some more, stare out my window and from time to time look back over all the notes I have gathered while researching Coreen and those important years. This story is rooted in a time when racial prejudices were no longer tolerated by much of our country, and certainly not in my home, yet the trappings of racial inequality were visible everywhere, even in my home.
As I peruse the current headlines, I am reminded of just how far we still need to go to root out these paradoxes. Clearly there will be no healing until we do. Realizing Black Lives Matter is more than essential, more than a hashtag, it is the very heart of our complex and diverse America.
I do not feel equal to the task of writing this story, with all the complexity it entails, but as I start each day, I will give it my all.