In a family of strong writers, daughters are taught to find their voice.
I don’t just see her desk in that back part of their kitchen, I can smell the years of sauteed butter embedded in the walls. The vinyl on the kitchen bench is sticky in the summer heat and it squeaks when anyone moves. She pokes her head out to greet us, still writing. On the fridge are the words of Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all. While hovered later over a hot stove in a pink bandanna, she tells me words are neither flimsy nor to be feared. Go find their meaning. I wonder if she spoke that way to my father when he was young. How her words cut through bone to the marrow.
My father’s mother was a journalist in her 20’s, who as legend has it, turned down advances from Bing Crosby at the Boise train depot, and interviewed the likes of diplomats. It wasn’t until my days in her kitchen were long gone—an apron powdered thick by flour and the pungent smell of bouillabaisse—when I learned what had shaped her words before domesticity.
It was too hot out to be in labor. It had been years since I’d written, and like most things while pregnant, nothing went as planned. My words fell flat. I longed for them to return. Words with power like the ocean’s force. Much like the instant your face hits glacial water: sharp and head-splitting. Labor is like that. It requires a surrender where you can’t seem to catch your breath. My tiny glimpse of life as a writer, that emerged in her kitchen while young and naive, had lain dormant for years.
God help me bring my child safely into this world, and open what’s closed.
After college, I escaped to life in the mountains. I shoveled snow and told myself rugged existence in a bitterly cold place was character-building. It was—but really, I had skin to shed. I needed new and nothing fit. Not to stay where I was, not to return to the city of my youth, not to seek familiar in all of its comforts. On the shores of Lake Tahoe at dusk and dawn I stood with arms stretched wide and bled saline and scribbled in the sand. It was a dramatic season marked by my soul’s salty rain. When a well runs dry you dig for a new one or die of thirst. I shoveled snow and dug deep for the girl who felt lost, and strangely feared the permanence of her own words.
What am I going to contribute to the world with my measly life? There are happy memories of our countless trips to the public library with my mother. And her countless grammatical corrections on long car rides—you couldn’t escape them if you tried, the warm dinner table discussions and debates, and social studies papers with high marks. Words were king and our tête-à-têtes sacred. Words mean nothing now. Yet, my heart wrote on those lonely trails, remembering all the women in my family who persevered … beyond motherhood, despite motherhood, without motherhood. My heart wrote on those miles I covered while running. I tried to write in my mind and put pen to paper, but buried deep by the snow, everything felt bleak and confusing. Like marrow: naked, soft and gelatinous, ready to be devoured by others, I cocooned from the world.
And then as life moves on, everything went quiet with transformation. The jagged words trickled away. Years later, married and pregnant and blissful, I felt different, perched on the edge of newness. With the life inside me, kicking to the sound of our voices, I reached out to grasp rhetoric from the ‘dark night of my soul’ but there was nothing. In its place, a sense of overwhelming peace. It had been a long time since I drove late at night to find my words. No longer writing through blurry tears, sitting oceanside with the sad realization of them failing me.
When my firstborn finally arrived on that sweltering afternoon, all kinds of emotions and memories collided from an old self and reborn soul. The inexplicable miracle of birth ripped open a door of prose as she slipped out. Her feet bloody from birth (the ones that now make glorious pitter-patter) remind me of cold winters reading late into the night, tiptoeing past my mother in the kitchen as she writes, her glass of chardonnay growing lukewarm. She’s at the table marking up my thesis, her left hand always makes a backwards ‘g’: “It’s wonderful, but needs some more work.” Then a kiss on the cheek with that sweet smell of her heavy night cream, never mincing words. Both sure marks of her love. I wasn’t afraid of words while wrapped in that moment. There’s the first sight of my college Lit professor, her dynamic lectures and sharp black bob like Amelie; Hemingway and Faulkner and the ugly overalls and midriffs I wore entirely too often that semester. There’s the warm California coastline, my perfectionism turned procrastination and the exhaustion of relentless essays, letters from heartbreak and matriarchs tucked away in shoe boxes.
The baby girl who made me a mother became the muse for which I had searched high and low. She is the culmination of the long battle to find my voice; the product of a love that blossoms unexpectedly when your well runs dry, of a woman ‘leaning on her beloved coming up from the wilderness,’ of purpose that finds you in the waiting. All the shards of college writing and praying for snow to melt, all the grace in the night I longed to find in the years before she existed, they all fell away at her arrival. She gives hope and meaning to all my words, past and present.
I wonder if I’ll make her proud like I have my own mother, whose powerful command of English taught me to be resolute, intentional, and brave. I wonder if my renewed hope birthed under the wild stars and in one sweltering afternoon was at all like my namesake journalist in her 20’s. I wonder if her baby boomers ever quietly tiptoed past in the wee hours to see their mother with pen and ink and stationery in hand. I wonder if they both see what I see when I look into the face of my daughter: hope perched in the soul, singing the tune without the words.