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rough draft: my second Memoir Writing Assignment (an imitation of Amy Benson’s ‘The Sparkling-Eyed Boy’)

July 9, 2008

For a reference to my First Memoir Writing Assignment, as well as the accompanying disclaimer, click here.


“The Migration”



We left like unpracticed bedouin.  A naturally introspective child, I said goodbye to almost no one, but, instead, walked from the Bradford Pear, to the Mimosa, to the Willow, and Pine.  They had been the stakes of my childhood home; these trees literally planted alongside my infancy were the things we could not take.  There would be other steps to other foyers, even other hydrangeas, daffodils, ferns, but my name wouldn’t be scarred onto other trunks, and no other willow would crown my head hundreds of times.

I’d found the yellow legal pad weeks earlier.  Dad always wrote with the same kind of pen: black except for the metal clip and a tiny ridged circle on the head of the cap that was colored– red for grading, blue for everything else.  In his unnatural hand (that of a 1950’s-born reformed lefty) he’d scrawled ‘hilton head’ and ‘wilmington’ across the top.  Down from there spilled the pro’s and con’s of each.  I don’t remember any of them.  We ended up in Wilmington.  

In a sense, we were going home.  Both my families were ocean people.  And a man named Williams had left Bristol, England some hundreds of years before and found his way to Wilmington.  His descendants, named and renamed Iradelle, Blackwell, Williams, would ultimately rend my great-grandmother, Isabel Williams.  She was a painter and nurse, who’d gone inland to the windless, red-clay land where I grew up.  She married John Blackwell, and gave birth to my father’s mother, and two more children.  Daddy had spent childhood summers with his grandmother’s spinster sister, Capki (Catherine), at Wrightsville Beach, a peninsula-turning-barrier-island just outside Wilmington city-limits.

We’d been migratory for my whole life: like a catch of shore-birds, going east for summers, and west for the rest of the year.  The edginess, openness, and vulnerability of seascape was intimately familiar to me, and I considered myself a ‘local’ rather than a tourist– after all, my maternal grandmother, and some cousins still lived there.  It was the landscape not of vacation, but of a kind of mystical genealogy.  I loved the wide, flat beach of the Grand Strand for its seeming endlessness, building to a deeper and deeper blue.  The whole of it was so fragile, and yet piled with pastel-colored summer homes with whimsical pun-infested names, like The Barry-cuda, The Dock’s House, or What’s to Sea.  Daddy made sure we understood from a young age why the dollar-weeds and sea oats were to be left holding the dunes together, and never ever carried home.  We’d go to the jetties to see the shrinking beach to one side.

The whole landscape, driving seaward from our house, was scarred by a particularly devastating hurricane that hit in ’88.  Row after row of pine trees were frozen, still upright, but completely dead, brown, needle-less.  The floods of saltwater had killed them, rather than the wind.  They were drowned like over-tended house plants.

The summer we moved to Wilmington, I turned fourteen.  I didn’t help pack, and am pressed to remember whether I was at camp, or simply staying over-long at my grandmother’s house.  I do remember coming home to find my things in boxes.  My front-of-the-house, three-window room had lost the usual light and shadows on its pink walls, the floor was back to being unclothed; the innards of the trees, lines waxing and waning with annual rainfall, lay open-faced on the floor.  As far back as my memory stretched, I had always lived in this room, in this house, in this town.  My mother’s sisters and their children lived in the same town.  We were eight-strong, and our childhoods are in many ways indistinguishable; we lived like some kind of African compound, except the houses weren’t mud, and the matriarchs all had green eyes and blonde hair.

I understood that we had to go.  That there were actions so egregious that adults had no option but to leave the wagging tongues of small towns, a child tucked under each arm, bridges burning.  We left my mother’s family’s business in shambles, my dad’s career dead where it lay; Wilmington was far enough.  That was probably somewhere on the legal pad; Wilmington: “far enough.”  Far enough to escape the long shadows, to start clean, to enter exile.

We went back on weekends for a while to dust, until the house was sold.  I didn’t care much; it didn’t look the same.  The house my mother designed with its jack-and-jill bathrooms, a sun-porch, a playroom, built-in china cabinets, was now alien.  I had been raised in a yellow house, with white porch railings and grey porch floors, reminiscent of the impenetrable Haint Blue of Charleston row-houses.  The house we sold was grey, however, not yellow.  Sometime the spring before, we had watched the sky ink-over in a descending tornado.  Every living thing lay quiet and still.  Where we lived, the humidity meant homes without cellars or basements, so we sat in the windowless middle bathroom for the several minutes it took the storm to touch and pass.

Afterward, the side-yard was filled with frozen planets the size of softballs.  Grayson and I held them to the light, examining the whitish center and liquifying sides.  The pear tree was ravaged; there were holes knocked in the yellow siding, dents on the hood of Dad’s truck, a broken window.  The beautiful yellow siding was twelve years old, and could not be matched; my mother chose to replace it with cool grey and new floodlight fixtures.  Overnight, the house shrank in its lot, and would never look the same.  The metaphor of the now-ashen color was unbearable in its perfection.

My parents let me paint murals in my room in the new house.  I’d been there when we found it.  I remember my grandmother saying we’d seen some fifty houses by then, when our slightly overweight and deeply kind realtor, a middle-aged blonde woman, walked my mother into a brick house on a street of brick houses.  Barely through the door, I heard her let out a terrifying primal scream, followed by: “THIS IS IT!  THIS IS IT!  THIS IS THE HOUSE!”  Four bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, we bought it from a retired couple.  It didn’t have a willow, or mimosa, or pear, and the only pines were the fast-growing kind: tall, thin, branchless until the very top.  Bullet died within a few years; Daddy just walked out one morning to find her stiff, cut down by an aneurism or heart-attack.  Nobody told me until her body was already gone, in the truck with Daddy and Grayson; they buried her in a field on the family hunting property.

That summer, without any new friends, I threw myself upon the tiny glass pots of paint we’d bought.  The Carolina Blue walls, sloped like those of an attic, quickly bore spongy clouds, a rendition of the Cape Hatteras light house, a spread of dunes and broken fence, a gull on pilings, a stretch of water capped by a sailboat.  In the four years I lived there, the paintings were never finished.  The gull lived by a penciled ghost companion, the dunes never got their preserving grass.  After a couple of years of out-of-state college my mom called for permission to paint over them; the walls are yellow now.

Once I could drive, I’d go to the beach every day in the summer, before or after my part-time job.  I’d drive the back-road through Monkey Junction and Myrtle Grove, over the bridge, and down to the beaches: Carolina, Kure, Fort Fisher.  I’d go alone with a book and towel, taking long walks and swims.  Something about the way the ocean made me hungry and tired and satisfied killed the long days, gave me a destination.  The daily sea baths were marked by a kind of sanctity.  I’d let the waves pummel me, or lay on my back on windless days when the water was smooth like glass, soaking up salt in my pores, letting it clean me, heal me.

I reasoned, if we had to leave, there was no where else to go but the shore.  A landscape so rough and so vulnerable, the tiny pulsing marshes, and the yearly storms lived in me, fed on me, marked me again and again with cycles of grief and joy, with the aches of the growing.  In the Port City’s old downtown I’d walk by the Williams’ cottage, a historic landmark turned bed and breakfast, or pass my fingers over the marriage plaque of my great-great-grandparents in St. James’ and let the idea take root.  I knew about the brackish water hiding nasty sandbars, about the children’s hospital where my grandmother had nursed, the cobbled slope of Market St., made for the rolling of barrels of pine pitch toward the docks on the Cape Fear River.  

And yet, given the first chance, I left.  I found the ocean an unsettlingly accurate reflection of self.  And, having learned nomadism, I became insatiate again.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Momma permalink
    July 9, 2008 1:11 pm

    My Darling Daughter,
    I have spent a thousand hours wondering what the move was like for you and your brother. Thank you for sharing your experience of it so eloquently. I regret that the practical aspects of the move took precedent over the emotional aspects, particularly for you, and that we did not create proper opportunities for you to have more closure with your friends. At the time, you said you did not want that, but maybe you were just hesitant to want it. Nevertheless, you soldiered on, and learned to survive in a profound loneliness that has largely marked your days ever since. We shared that when we first moved, and it is painful to bear, still. I love you so much, and deeply admire your work. I hope that this writing is healing for you, rather than unsettling. It is surely beautiful in its honesty, and I remain grateful that you can express yourself so thoroughly. Thank you for sharing it with us.
    With Love,

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