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I can’t remember the order of any place unless I write them down and even then the lists need so much pondering and readjusting. Time becomes confused after Summit, Mississippi, when I was ten and eleven, after the hunger and worn out hand me downs. I tried to talk about that time after my family made it back to New Mexico. I tried to talk about Mississippi. One day Daddy would say, “You may not have had clothes but at least you weren’t hungry.” Another time, “You may have been hungry but at least you had clothes.” There was no talking to him about any trauma and Mama didn’t believe in dwelling on sadness. I was so stubborn. I wouldn’t leave it alone.
My mother didn’t drive. We couldn’t go anywhere unless Daddy was home or a friendly neighbor offered to taxi us. My mother hated asking. For so long her fearfulness to learn frustrated me. I believed it to be fearfulness then. I wanted my mother to break us free of boredom. Later I blamed Daddy for prohibiting her driving, to do much of anything at all without him. He and I spent so much time arguing. I spoke for her, told him all the dreams and wishes we talked about when he was away and we sat in a hot trailer shooing flies, or trapped inside with a warm heater with the snow piled high and all those babies around, reading stories, imagining tomorrow and all the future might bring. We anticipated mail, hoping my mother’s sisters could find us. Cherished letters found us through General Delivery and rarely.
I wanted her to drive, to have a job, to realize her dream of going to college. I focused on the problem of Daddy’s power over her. As I listened for reasons, my questions grew. My mother spoke of what she could not remember, of uncertain memories. What had she gotten wrong? Were they just dreams or stories she had heard? Was her birthday actually the date she celebrated? When I turned seventeen she mentioned brain surgery, that there was a plate in her skull. I stared, inspecting her head for scars but all I could see was a hairline. I asked what happened? A car accident? She said yes, an accident. How strange that I cannot remember exactly how or when, but finally she told more of the truth. When she was seventeen and living in McComb, Mississippi with an Italian family she had known all of her life, a family who owned an Oyster House where she worked for the summer, someone shot her. She was proud of relearning to talk and walk. She described to me once details about learning words again, learning to put one foot in front of the other. Later I would discover that none of her sisters could remember her having those struggles.
I leave home at seventeen. I sit in the living room in a twelve-foot wide trailer and tell my mother I am going. She becomes very still, resolved. She says, “I always thought you would be here to help me with these boys.” In the days to follow, my mother starts having convulsions again after many years. Stress is to blame. It is my fault for leaving. Once my brothers witness seizures, Mama awakens saying she dreamt that she spun wearing a beautiful gown. Then a hand holds a gun. She wants to see the face that belongs to that hand but cannot. Coming out of the seizures she worries over blood ruining satin until she sees clearly and realizes she no longer wears the dress. She is thirsty. Daddy brings water. Each time it is the same. He is the only person she recognizes and does not fear. My brothers say, “It’s like she knows him but he’s someone else.”
I cried about my brothers when I left home. I wished I could have taken them along. If I had stuck around, what difference might I have made in their lives? I ran away for good and left them.
In the early nineties I moved back to my native Mississippi to try and uncover what exactly my mother had survived at the age of seventeen, what she continued to survive for years afterward. I found newspaper articles in the McComb Enterprise Journal from 1957 reporting the McComb police chief’s claim that as my mother went in and out of a coma, she managed to confess shooting herself. I searched through microfiche. In every article reporting a woman shot to death, the recorded reason was suicide. Armed with this information I went to my Aunt Bell’s, stunned. That I had never heard that version of the story surprised this sister closest in age to my mother of all ten children. She said, though, that no one believed the attempted suicide story. My mother was beautiful, the smartest. Olla Mae, the woman who owned the house in which she was shot, had Mama’s tuition money saved. Mama wanted to be a writer.
Judge Joe Pigott did not believe that version either. He walked with me on the oyster shell covered ground where the house once stood. Then we drove to his garage office. From one of many piles of folders he extracted photos depicting an X-ray of a dead girl’s skull, a twelve year old girl who haunted him. She had been shot with a .38 caliber handgun, the same type of gun someone had used to harm my mother. An off-duty policeman had shot that girl after raping her. He believed a girl who had witnessed that murder, whom he had talked into testifying. No one was convicted. All those years later we stood together, he haunted by memories, me haunted by their absence. Neither my mother nor that young girl ever found justice, but my mother lived.
I explain that my mother has no visible scars, her brain works fine. She gave me great books to read when I was little, Dickens, Hawthorne, the Brontes, so many classics. I couldn’t read enough or talk to her enough about the stories and the empathy we shared for characters. She mourned for Hester Prynne scarred with that scarlet letter, the shaming of one so young who bore blame and lived as an outcast. My mother remained brilliant. The Judge became sadder, speaking softly for my attention: “Maybe it was her will your mother lost.”
He sends me to interview a woman who might know secrets, a realtor who bought the property where the crime occurred. Her name is Dot. I introduce myself and my daughter. Her shock makes me think I am on to something. My daughter sits in a chair behind me tired from walking around on oyster shells and all my asking questions. How stupid now to think I brought her along. Dot keeps asking me how I am standing there asking questions. Where did the child behind me come from? I try and try to make clear that I want to know what no one can or will tell me. I simply want to know who shot my mother.
Finally I hear her asking again and again, “You mean that girl lived?”
She sits behind her desk in the realty office, amazed, almost terrified, I think, over my presence and that of my daughter’s. Our existences pose an incredible mystery.
She begins to speak of loyalty, to tell a story about how loyal all the employees had been to Joe and Olla Mae Carona, both of whom are long dead. She says Joe Carona, the man who owned the house where Mama was shot, the man who owned the business, used to ring a bell and have employees cater to his bed: whiskey, a newspaper, coffee, heaping plates of food. I sit in that realtor’s office, in a little chair next to my daughter, disoriented by the surprise my own existence has caused as I listen. In this little town many people believe my mother died despite the fact that she went on to finish her senior year and graduate high school not far away in the country. My daughter nudges me, says, “Mom? Let’s go.”
Her voice holds that tinge of realization that I heard on our way to Mississippi from Tucson where I had just finished my MFA. Somewhere in Texas, she said, “Mom, it’s not your mother’s lost childhood you’re looking for, it’s your own.” She sounds weary now too, as if she has found out enough.
If I look back and try to understand what my life has been, how we all survived, will I find answers to what I might have done for my brothers and daughter? Where I went wrong? What I might do now for them? Find ways to the nurture my granddaughter, the child who lives in my house, away from drugs and prison, upright in the confidence of found passion and good citizenry?
As I reflect, certain moments stand out in the winding of the memories and call to me, for instance, that childhood period of returning to Mississippi that contains the pain of hunger and worry exacerbated by terrible bullying. Daddy had wanted to go home.
The promised job Daddy went back for was only my uncle’s drunken carelessness. Warm relatives did not feed and clothe us throughout all the days. They were busy with the getting by of their own lives. In time, I had to make cardboard soles to cover holes in the bottoms of my shoes. I sometimes knew a great hunger like a bad drug that fogged my head and consumed me, messing me up in school. I wore a male cousin’s hand-me-down pants and shirts, two sets, over and over again. Kids teased me cruelly in that Mississippi school. They thought I deserved ridicule. After all, wasn’t I a Mexican coming from down there in Mexico? I gave up hope of explaining geography.
Not long ago on Chestnut Street in Summit, Mississippi I found the house where I lived for several months that year in the early seventies. The distance from that house to the school where we caught the buses in those first years of busing proved longer than in memory. Brian drove me but discouraged getting out of the car because of the neighborhood’s reputation for violence and theft. I heard the church bell I had listened to when I was ten turning eleven and thought of a girl, once friend, whose family was poverty-stricken. Her infant brother lay in a crib, his face blue, as he slowly died from hydrocephalus. The horror of what was happening to that baby filled every hopeless, weighted movement inside that house. I remember how grief was a shining thing in his mother’s eyes. My friend and I sat outside and listened to the bugs ticking so we could breathe. I didn’t know what to say. There was so much sadness everywhere but my god there was nothing worse than the sadness in that house, the baby boy dying in that crib, a baby who could not keep receiving hospital care, whose family could not afford any more help to ease the pain. It was a house filled with awful waiting.
Sometimes my education builds a gulf from people I knew growing up. Still there remains all these people I cannot forget, these places I yearn for like home.
I write to build a road that maps a meaning to the disconnection. I write to make my belonging visible through claiming memory. I write to shape chaos, to make something of loss, to hold on a little to moments, ugly and beautiful, that keep moving right on by. If I do this, will it matter to my brother in the prison cell? Might it help my daughter climb out of drug addiction or at least free me of some sorrow? Help me keep my granddaughter free from addiction? Can I honor the pain of my mother, of mothers and fathers imprisoned in hopelessness? Books saved my life. The writing of our stories can pull children into new worlds and provide space for understanding their own. Stories offer bridges over the gulf.
Darlin’ Neal is the author of the story collections Rattlesnakes and the Moon and Elegant Punk (Press 53). “Follow Them Spinning” is an excerpt from the memoir Highways I Once Traveled. A recipient of the D.H. Lawrence, Frank Waters, and Mississippi Arts Commission Fiction Fellowships and a Henfield Transatlantic Review Award, Darlin’ is associate professor in the University of Central Florida’s MFA Program for Writers.@darlinneal