A Community of Writers Helped Me Change My Life

I have been asked what I am planning to do with this blog.

I am getting warmed up, for now, working on my voice, working at the practice of writing. I have always kicked around the idea of writing a memoir, but I struggle with discipline, structure, and framing. I am hoping to gain clarity and direction as I write and share. The response from friends, family, and the public is fueling my momentum. I am grateful to be welcomed into a community of writers and readers.

The last time I was part of a writing community I was attending a magnet high school for the arts. The writers and staff helped me find my voice during the most pivotal year of my life.

I spent somewhere around 70 days truant in my sophomore year of high school. I filled those days handwriting page after college-ruled page of garbage writing.

The story was a fantasy in which a character, much like myself, ran away to L.A. She worked as a checkout girl in a crunchy health food store. A lucky day arrived when she met, Michelle Pfeiffer, at the checkout counter. The 90’s icon took on a motherly, nurturing role, guiding the young woman to happiness and success. So embarrassing, but it kept me going through the darkest depression I knew at the time.

My mother was a stark contrast to the nurturing one I sought in my fantasies. She lost her battle to both untreated mental illness and poorly controlled, type two diabetes, at 58-years-old.

My parents divorced when I was 3-years-old, and my other’s steep decline began. She was a single mother whose life was funded by my grandparents. She suffered long depressions and energetic, creative periods marked by unfinished craft projects meant to make money. She went on spending sprees purchasing 400 dollars of junk from Sam’s Club per weekly trip. She also taught me to love classic movies, Broadway musicals, fishing, and crafts. She even sewed, beaded, and accessorized, nearly every figure skating costume that my sister and I wore.

She also, at times, tossed refrigerator drawers full of putrid, liquefied veggies at my sister, Danielle, and I, drawer and all. Sometimes she chose to pay for our ice-time and figure skating lessons instead of the electric shut-off notice or a tank full of heating oil.

Every choice was about instant gratification. Everything wrong with her life was her childrens’ fault. Mom’s anger had bull horns. We learned to be rodeo clowns, to be quicker and lighter on our feet lest we be gored.

Danielle left home when she was 18, and I could not blame her. She had skipped school and gotten caught. Unwilling to face one more rage, she did not come home. I was 12-years-old and petrified; Danielle had often physically intervened for me, taking the brunt of Mom’s wrath.

It was around that time I began the ritual of wishing for my escape on the first star I spotted each night. The wish was always a variation on “one day, I want a happy average life.” I thought I was more likely to earn my wish if I had realistic expectations.

I spent somewhere near 70 days truant in my sophomore year of high school.

I wanted to be an excellent student, not the weirdo who barely showed up. I figured I had to go to college if I wanted out. College was expected in my community. My poor attendance meant I missed entire units of the curriculum. I rarely completed assignments, and when I did, they were the work of a chronic underachiever.

My teachers were surprised when I applied to a magnet school for the arts in, New Haven; I was not known to participate in extracurriculars. I had to stand before the board of education and convince them that I ought to be allowed to attend a specialized magnet school. I submitted a writing sample, sat through an interview, and was accepted into the advanced writing class. I spent the summer promising myself that, junior year, I would turn everything around.

*     *     *

On the first day of Junior year, I began the routine of leaving my high school, Amity, at lunch and driving down to New Haven. I white-knuckled the wheel through the unfamiliar city traffic.

The writers’ room of the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) in New Haven was small, filled with tattered couches and a couple of overstuffed recliners. There was just room enough to get around the coffee table to the furthest seat. I felt so lame that first day, particularly because of being in the advanced class. Many of the students were well indoctrinated into the requisite bohemian dress and lifestyle.

They smoked clove cigarettes and returned from our fifteen-minute mid-school breaks, sucking down black coffee, lips puckering with each slurp. One of my classmates, a tall, lithe boy, wore a floor length silver skirt. His top was silver, and his skin was equally reflective with silver body paint. Then someone called his name. I realized the silver boy, and I had been on a date to a movie, chauffeured by our mothers, when we were counselors in training at a Schooner camp a couple of years prior, weird small world.

On the first night of that school year, my mother bellowed from her chair in the kitchen. “Brooke, hrrum.” She grunted then began a mucus-filled cough.

Several minutes later she yelled again. “Come here and refill my drink.”

I was at the other end of the house studying on my absurd full-wave water bed. My books were covered with brown shopping bags. The corresponding notebooks were labeled and organized, scattered about the bed.

I was nearly done outlining the first chapter in my American history textbook.

“Let me finish this chapter,” I yelled back.

I heard the rustling and crunching as she came down the trash-matted hallway. For a sick woman, she could be fast when enraged. She grabbed the open text and binder with force. My whole body bobbed up and down on the liquid mattress as the books impacted the “Dangerous Minds” movie poster on my far wall. The top right corner tore and sagged. Michelle Pfeiffer looked pissed off.

My best writing typically came from in-class writing exercises. The first piece I wrote that felt like quality writing was an essay about the loss of my grandfather. My teacher thought I was mature and above all, willing to learn and relentlessly edit.

I was not, “murdering my darlings,” I was molding them. I was a writer. I lived it, exercises, workshops, readings for the student body, readings by visiting poets. I loved it.

Parents of dancers and photographers came up to me after my first all-school reading to say how cathartic my essay had been, how they had cried. What a feeling for a girl who could not cry at all from ages fifteen to twenty-one. I touched something true in other humans. They felt as I did. Writing became like crying for me; I began to feel safe sharing pieces of myself.

Mom’s anger had bull horns. We learned to be rodeo clowns, to be quicker and lighter on our feet, lest we be gored.

In early December of 1997 our humor, monologue, and essay teacher, Madeline, was surprised when she returned from our afternoon break. “What’s going on, you guys?”

I was in a ratty burgundy recliner that day, a coveted spot. I had fallen asleep as had several others. They were on couches leaning against one another. Many of them went to the same New Haven high school. They went around the room, all complaining of late nights spent studying for their semester finals, some up until two in the morning.

My school was on a different exam schedule. As everyone chimed in, I knew my silence would be noted. I planned on claiming I was sleeping because of exams as well. None of them would have known. But I did not want to lie about my home, my childhood, Mom—not one more time.

“Brooke?” Madeline and the class set their eyes on me.

I sighed. “I was up until four last night.” I stopped. Maybe that was honest enough.

“Exams?” Madeline asked less formally, leaning forward in her chair.

“No. My mom kept me up until four-ish” I thought of the growl in my mother’s voice as she threatened to make me quit ECA. To her, it was another lever to bend me to her will.

“Cleaning.” I used the word as a full sentence.

Madeline’s eyes, surrounded by her wild frizzy curls, grew heavy, she was older for a moment with every muscle of her face furrowing. “Let’s speak after class.” It was a demand. “If you have time.” It was still a demand.

After class, I explained a smidgeon of my life to Madeline. She asked me to meet with her and the school guidance counselor before class the following day.

The guidance counselor, Helen, wore her silver hair at shoulder length. Her glasses hung from a turquoise beaded chain over her maternal breasts.  I was cognizant of the glances Madeline and Helen exchanged as I began.

“My mom isn’t well.” My left knee jack-hammered up and down. “We live in a house with floors and counters covered in garbage.” There was no word I knew for how we lived. It was difficult to imagine anyone else living as we did. “I want to go to college; I want to do well in school.”

“Brooke, does your mother hurt you?” The women wore matching frowns.

“She does, sometimes. That’s not really the problem.”

The two women flinched, simultaneously.

“She keeps me up to all hours cleaning. She threw my books across my room on the first day of school. That’s how she feels about school and me. She’s scared I’m gonna leave her. She would rather I have no opportunities, so that way I never leave.”

“What do you mean cleaning?” Madeline’s hands were clasped together over her knees.

I had to think about how to describe it as it was nothing I dared commit words to. “I mean that in some parts of the house the trash is two feet deep. I mean every take-out wrapper, every newspaper, every cigarette carton, unopened bills, it all ends up on the ground, rotting.”

I saw it in my head after one of the many full clean-outs our grandparents paid for. It was like a living thing in my house, climbing from the un-emptied kitchen garbage, piles of mail falling from the table. It all met and took over.

“I’m not innocent; I’ve given up putting my rarely washed clothes away. I choose what I wear from my floor. I don’t even take the trash to the dump when I say I will.” I felt ashamed admitting the lie. I lied all of the time to my mother. Danielle and I had to. We treated our mother with reverence and perfect manners, but lying about anything that might trigger her anger, was survival. I was lost for a minute in my shame, my face aflame, eyes on the teal office carpet.

“Why don’t you leave?” Helen said it so plainly, so matter of fact.

“I can’t,” came out quickly; I did not hear myself say it.

“Why not?” Again as if it was an obvious choice. She leaned back in her chair,  playing with the chain on her glasses and waited for me to think.

I thought of the look on my Grandmother’s face as she told me not to disappoint my mother, that I was all she had left.

“I’m all that’s left. She is my responsibility, my grandmother told me she needs someone to look after her.” This was one of my grandmother’s rare allusions to our Mom’s untreated mental health issues, which I parroted.

Helen leaned towards me and spoke clearly. “Brooke, I want you to understand me.” She waited for one beat for me to meet her eyes. “Your mother is not your responsibility.” She let that hang a few minutes.

I did not take my eyes from her.

“You have been your mother’s responsibility, and she has failed you.”

“Your mother is not your responsibility,” looped round and round my head. I arrived home after babysitting that night and met my mother’s glazed eyes through her large frame, bifocals and wondered if I would ever be strong enough to leave.

To be continued…

This writing is a memoir and by nature is based on fallible memories. The reader should not consider this writing to represent anything but the memories of the author.

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