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A very rough draft of my first Memoir Writing assignment (an imitation of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Discomfort Zone”)

July 2, 2008

*Please note: the innocent have not been spared in this piece, and no names were changed. However, I know there are some distortions (because of the nature of memory, etc.) Feel free, those of you who were there, to compare stories and “fact-check” as you see fit. Also, I will invoke the Generic Disclaimer here: it’s not as good as it could be, I didn’t have enough time, sleep, energy, resources. The dog ate my homework, and someone must have stolen the perfect parts. Here it goes, anyway.*



This is not my baby. Those were my mother’s first words to me. In her medicated haze, from the other side of a drawn white curtain, they’d slit her and pried my buried head from her ribs. Each time she came around she’d ask, and my father would repeat, a girl, Jane. It’s a girl. Only to have her forget again, folding her green eyes, mumbling that she felt open and unsewn still.
I was worshipped in the way only first babies are. My eyes were not just dark, they were slate colored wells of wisdom, the eyes of an old spirit, not a child. My ruddy face and black hair weren’t manifestations of my father’s dominant genes, they were exotic, native, estranged from my mother’s strawberry-blonde hair. I was their miracle baby, the one who hadn’t dissolved into bloody clumps, the one with ten fingers, ten fingernails, not the withered hibiscus-hands my mother had secretly feared. I was the thing that could not be and was.

I spent my childhood wanting to be an adult. I’d cling to my grandmother’s neck like a locket, managing to go unnoticed at the “grown-up’s table,” silently catching words, playing with half-eaten pound cake. I was an odd thing of show, adorned in smocked dresses that my grandmother bought when my mom wasn’t home. She’d take me to visit her since-dissolved Bridge Club friends, the owners of her favorite shops. Presenting such a quiet, picturesque child elicited smiles, of course. But I was sure that adults were always laughing at me. That there was something being transmitted which I couldn’t understand, and I was the butt of it. I felt frustrated, embarrassed; I’d dissolve into tears, hide under skirts, insisting that everyone stop looking and laughing at me. I knew that I was silly, and small, and that there were things I did not know. And I wanted to know them.

By the time I was five or six, I’d developed a system of classifying life: things that work out and things that don’t work out. Like getting a tan, for instance. Every summer we lived with my grandmother at Cherry Grove Beach in a grey stilted house that backed up to a saltwater creek. I knew enough to know that getting tanned was bad for you. Even if I didn’t understand why, exactly. And yet, it made a person more beautiful, it put “rosies in your cheeks” as my mother would say. To me, it did not make sense, it did not work out for something to be bad for you and good for you at once. In those long moments of childhood occupied by braiding pine-straw or watching raindrops chase themselves across car windows, I was totally involved in ticking off the universe’s hiccups, the things that did not work out.

The birth of my brother, Grayson, shortly before my second birthday, gave me the authority I craved at last. He was my constant companion, the sole other occupant of my strange world. The kind of fierce pride I felt about his curls and big dark eyes must have been what the adults had felt about me, though I couldn’t be sure. He was mine.

I was distinctly aware, from an early age, that I lived in a charmed world. My dramas were small, as the dramas of children are. Even more than childhood often is, mine was blessed by a booming economy and an absence of war. We wanted to pretend to the epic, though.

In the fourth grade I gave a report on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Compounded by the release of the Disney movie Pocahontas, I had found my first obsession with stories. Something of my own narrative, the oft-repeated mention of me as my mother’s Indian baby, bred a fondness for romantic notions about nature, and my own closeness to it. My dad took Grayson hunting or fishing every Saturday in a stretch of land along the Great Pee Dee river dense with evergreens, red clay and alligator grass. For the entire year he was three my brother refused to wear any shoes but cowboy boots, and added a bolero tie, hat, and chaps to the ensemble whenever he could.

The Christmas I was seven we finally got our four-legged side-kick, Bullet “Big-buck” Roberts. A female mutt incapable of barking, and inclined to sleep in the corner of our back porch all day, waking only to sniff around Mr. Ernie’s wild onions, Bullet dutifully followed us into the drainage ditch beside the overgrown lot behind the house every day. I’d tear off a willow switch, braiding it to itself to make an Indian headband, and we’d start our expedition. To us the tiny moss-patched banks, and leaning dogwoods were the edge of the unexplored world; the stream became the mighty Mississippi, Bullet was a wolf we’d tamed, and everything around us was undiscovered, uncharted, and ripe for the collecting. I kept COMPOSITION notebooks for drawings of new flora and fauna, we’d name and declare ‘discovered.’ We’d collect any animal, filling the plastic aquariums that accumulated over years of buying hermit crabs from beachwear stores and watching them die.

We had an established lizard society, which met on the playground at recess, a field mouse the cat caught but didn’t kill, a rat snake from our grandparent’s cellar, a few hundred dragon flies, roly-polies, an ant farm, and a catch of fallen baby mockingbirds. My dad had been a biology major in college, and now taught ninth-graders at South Florence High School. He was omniscient– spinning off latinate names of trees and birds, helping us make terrestreums and homes for our scaled/ antennaed/ furry/ feathered brood.

And so it was to him that I brought Crumple, a deformed Monarch butterfly I’d found at school and tucked in my pencil box with grass and leaves until I could get him home. We set him up in a cigar box on the window ledge, shaded by the bradford pear tree. For hours I would sit, balancing him on my forefinger or knuckles, watching his lasso-tongue unfurl into the jar-lid full of sugar water. Because he’d gotten stuck coming out of his cocoon, Dad explained, the infinitely small vessels in his wings had pumped blood, hardening them within hours of his attempted emergence. The wings were folded up, a pile of bent planes covered in tiny orange and black scales.

Otherwise, he was a perfect specimen. And, because he couldn’t fly, I could watch him as closely as I wanted. He had lost the most definitive and elusive quality of butterflies, because of which I was not frustrated by him the way I was by others. Butterflies have a flight trajectory that is all-but-impossible to predict, making them hard to catch. Once caught, their wings fold, showing only the mottled cream and brown underside, not whatever extravagant colors and eyespots lay within.

I spent all afternoon every day examining him in the dusty upstairs playroom. And I drew him in my notebook, over and over, noting his furry back, the directions of his leg joints, his upturned face and the fractured surface of his eyes. He seemed so finely crafted as to be infinitely interesting. I could notice him for hours and not bore. And it electrified me to be so close to a sedentary insect; he was captive, but still a butterfly, moving his legs and mouth and tongue in butterfly ways.

When he died, days later, we buried him in a jeweler’s cardboard box, on a bed of cotton. I was devastated, sure that I had neglected his needs in some way and caused his death. No one had thought to tell me that adult butterflies only lived for days or weeks, their entire life being devoted to reproduction. As beautifully fashioned and meticulously wrought a creature as Crumple should have had a higher calling and a longer life, to my mind. It was one of those things that didn’t work out. Even the least successful and attractive of the species, Crumple still bore an extreme level of intricacy, a kind of flamboyance of Nature, a piece of showmanship, a thing to admire.

My mother had been a premature baby, whose twin was miscarried early in the pregnancy. She was the youngest of four in a dysfunctional family, which provided the town of Andrews, SC with the biggest house and a Mayor, in my great-grandfather. Because of the lack of knowledge about premature babies in 1961, my mother was sent home from the hospital on a pillow, so tiny that my grandmother was almost afraid of her. She developed asthma and allergies to everything; unlike me, she spent her childhood locked in the house because one roll in the summer grass would mean an hour drive to see Dr. Gamble in Charleston.

I begrudged her her allergies as a child. I loved cats, and she couldn’t breathe in their presence. When we eventually got a cat (the same Christmas we got Bullet), they both lived outside exclusively. And outdoor cats are primal, skittish, and shy, nothing like their intimate indoor counterparts. Momma wore no perfume, and almost no make-up, as she was allergic to dyes. She couldn’t touch rubber or Styrofoam, eat shrimp or smell flowers. She always smelled like Lubriderm unscented lotion, and carried two plastic inhalers–one orange and one green– with her everywhere.

She viewed my own emotional sensitivities as a product of her physical ones. The Easter I was three I began a pattern of coping with over-stimulation that sent my parents on a search for medical answers. My cousin Mikkel, five years older and a bit of a bully, had collected about four times as many eggs as I had that afternoon, including some of the plastic ones my grandpa hid with chocolate or dollars inside. In a moment of sure fury at the unfairness of others being bigger and better than me, I held my breath for the first time. Passing out, my arm scraped the brick-edged flower bed. My dad threw me over his arm, which knocked me into breathing again. For the rest of the afternoon I sat inside with my Grandmother.

My panicked parents had Dr. Davis, my dark-haired pediatrician, test me for everything he could think of. I wasn’t having seizures. The breath-holding became a habit, still inexplicable. And every time, Mom or Dad, one, would toss me over their arm to jump start my breath. Only when I grew so tall that I hit my head in the process of being revived did I just as inexplicably stop the phenomena.

Nearly twenty years later, I called my mother from college to report the explanation: early panic attacks, very rare, and something my therapist likened to psychological asthma. Through laughter, she told me that I was undeniably hers.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Charles permalink
    July 2, 2008 9:27 am

    Well done. Drew me right in.

  2. July 2, 2008 11:56 am

    This is beautiful Whitney…maybe I just woke up on the sensitive side of the bed this morning but it’s nice to start off the day with some good little cries. I think it’s the raw nature of the writing that I devour and an emotional threshold is overcome that I never seem to come close to in real, more-oft-than-not, mundane, and predictable, life. Really well done ; ) Thank you.

  3. packedsuitcase permalink
    July 3, 2008 12:38 am

    Beautiful. Interesting, funny, insightful, and emotional.

    Keep posting what you write. I love your voice.

  4. greeneyedmuse permalink*
    July 3, 2008 7:24 am

    Thank you all so much for taking the time to read, and give feedback. It really helps, and I value each of your opinions immensely.

    Josh– I wake up on the sensitive side of the bed every morning, ;o).

    Sarah– Lola looks lovely perched in your books. Thanks for the encouragement about “life after ELS”– seems charlotte is treating you well!

  5. Mikkel permalink
    July 8, 2008 8:37 pm

    I just really liked eating hard-boiled eggs. They had to hide them from me so I wouldn’t eat them before Easter morning. Thusly am I an excellent seeker of hidden dyed eggs.

  6. greeneyedmuse permalink*
    July 8, 2008 9:45 pm

    not to mention the major gap in our cognitive and motor skills at the time. . .


  1. rough draft: my second Memoir Writing Assignment (an imitation of Amy Benson’s ‘The Sparkling-Eyed Boy’) « { The Green-Eyed Muse }

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