The leg lamp—fishnet stocking, flapper fringe, high heel—is almost an exact facsimile of Old Man Parker’s ‘major award’ in A Christmas Story. I am marveling almost as much as Old Man himself, delighted by the being of such an unlikely thing. My tuxedo shirt’s untucked, my hair tousled, and I am beaming with a readiness for something new. Mama is looking lovely in cream, and the gift is a dream.
This photo finds itself in different rooms, depending on where Mama moves next. For now, it rests on a desk in her living room. My high school graduation from Cardinal Gibbons—we have returned from the ceremony, and the lamp is my present. Mama wanted to get me something I’d take to college, knowing I wasn’t much for stuff unless it made me laugh or made itself useful. What better than this? It remains to this day my favorite gift. I set it on a table in the center of my dorm room window once it made its way down to Atlanta.
The afternoon is warm and swollen with the promise of rain, and the bugs are chirping fast to get some sex in before the storm. The trees beyond my grandfather’s yard begin to blink. He is still alive, my father’s father, though my grandmother has been dead for a handful of years, and Aunt Donna and Uncle Ray have moved from the back house to the front. I lived here once before, after I left Hawaiʻi with my father and before I moved back to be with my mother. I know this place well—the woods, the barn, the concrete porch that connected the two houses, that smelled like dog urine. I learned how to swim in my aunt’s above-ground pool. I learned how to drive a tractor. Ten years later, my mother has moved into the back house, and I am here again, at the end of my childhood.
Mama and I moved around Maryland often for those handful of years. From the trailer park to Pasadena, to Granny’s Glen Burnie breezeway, to the Baltimore projects, to the Ferndale cottage, and now here. Six homes in seven years. Each time, she would say some variation of, “I’m tired of this fucking place.” I was complicit in her declaration. We were both wanderers by nature, but our mobility wasn’t out of want.
Before graduation, before I began high school, before I moved back in with her, my mother met Bill Hibbs. He was a Marine, like my father. They met and married in that wrinkle of time when my mother wasn’t around. Bill was handsome and charismatic and, most of all, strong. Strong enough to balance my body with one arm. Strong enough to, from a single punch, break the jaw of a man, who fender-bended him in a parking lot. Strong enough to lift my mother clear off her feet by the neck, when his tinny suspicions echoed off the hollow tops of empty beer bottles. He suspected she was cheating on him, but the malefactor was the paranoia that is characteristic of latent Schizophrenia.
Five years before my graduation day, on March 30, in the finale to a series of escalating violence, Bill came home reeking of booze, shoved my mother into her car, and drove towards the place he planned to kill her. He detailed to her how he was going to do it while she lay stuffed on the passenger floorboard. It is only by luck and the hawk-like spotting of an off-duty, plain-clothes cop that my mother did not end up dead in a ditch.
Because they were married, and because of our patriarchal judicial system, Bill was not sent to jail. And while my mother sought refuge, issued a restraining order, Bill freely followed—with his body, his voice, his iniquity. He spent nights parked outside my Granny’s house, far away enough not to trespass, close enough to terrorize. Calls in the middle of the night to prove he knew where we’d moved. I could no longer ride the bus. One afternoon my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, asked me why I did so poorly on her science test—“you seem distracted lately”—and I cried alone against the smudgy glass of the middle school lobby doors, waiting for my police escort to take me home. The phone calls, the unexpected cameos, the threats had my mother’s nails bitten to the quick, and so we moved, and we moved—in some ways to evade him, in some ways, I believe, to evade her shame. I don’t know why, but I felt my mother blamed herself for what had happened. I only realized later that’s what most battered women do.
Shortly after we moved to our Ferndale cottage, my mother happened upon an empath named Margaret. A small, knitted-sweater woman who could have been someone’s grandmother, someone’s macaroni casserole recipe, someone’s Avon calling. Sweet, intent, lively eyes. When I ask my mother how her and Margaret met, she can’t recall. At a grocery store checkout line? A street corner? An ad in the back of The Baltimore Sun? Mama has no clue. She was looking for something, and it obviously wasn’t lost. She became part of Margaret’s meditation gathering. Several women assembled monthly from across the county. Margaret soon implored my mother to have me join—imagine it, a congress of middle-aged women, and me, a late-blooming high-schooler. We sat in a circle, and went down into our minds to mine images. When we resurfaced, we’d brush off what we dug up from the deep end. In one of these sessions, called Love Throne, we focused energy on whomever sat at the head of the table, and shared what roused. Margaret told us to use hope as our eyes, while our eyes remained closed. There was such a hope in all of these women, and my hope was to open my mother back up to the world. After that horrible March 30th day—the Ides of March we called it—she closed up like a fist. I hated Bill most for this, and hated myself for feeling so helpless. During a Love Throne for my mother, the women conjured the color purple, a house on a lake, a porpoise, trees on a riverbank. I summoned an oyster shell. Margaret said I had a gift for reading. Margaret told me that one day my mother would lay the memory of Bill on a leaf and let it float along a river, and never wonder where it went.
There is a hope in moving. It has us focus solely on what’s next. Each place, a matter of something new. Each place, leaving something behind. Maybe even forgetting.
On a spring evening of my Freshman year in Atlanta, my dorm room phone rings. I hear “Gerbil?” on the other end, a nickname Bill gave me years before, when he had the right to give me one, at all. That voice, at once familiar and foreign, now rose in me a storm that I presumed I’d long since withstood. I slam the receiver down with such a rage, such a want to send the hate along the phone line, to take violent shape at the other end, that the table teeters. And my leg lamp, my beloved graduation gift, perched confidently on that table, falls, and fractures in five places. I later choose to view this moment as liminal, a ritual, something dug up from the deep end, the being of such an unlikely thing.
My mother is moving again, this time to an Alabama river. “I’m tired of this fucking place,” she says, and by place she means thirty years of Baltimore winters, Baltimore grit, Baltimore bullshit. But she also means the memories. She knows her life there is a patchwork of fractures, with each mending weaker than the last. I don’t know, perhaps this is true for all of us. Maybe she will move to Alabama, and the warmth will loosen her fist. Maybe, one day soon, a day not unique to others, she will walk to the riverbank, and she will launch a leaf, a thousand leaves. Maybe each leaf will carry with it something that needs to be let go. Maybe one of them will be the shame she’s shouldered all these years. I am moved to tears simply by writing the hope of this. That she will drop that leaf in the water, and turn back without even watching it disappear down the current.
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