My mother’s heartbeat. Her first words to me. A lullaby. Each sound breathing with purpose, washing over me, connecting the beating heart with the rhythm of speech. And then, the gradual winding of words into meaning.
My father at the kitchen table, his hands holding the newspaper open wide. I peek around the pages. Only his eyes move. He is reading. I am in first grade and soon I, too, will wear that look of concentration. I, too, will be able to read the words that will tell me things and take me away from here.
I visit the small library on the third floor of my elementary school once a week and choose three books to take home. I go first to the shelf that holds the biographies. I pick one. I walk across the room. I’ve read all of the Bobbsey Twins, so I pick the first Happy Hollisters. Then I head to the small shelf that holds only a few books. Robert Frost, again.
I’m ten years old. I’m allowed to walk into town alone. It’s summer and I spend hours in the air-conditioned library. In the evenings I sit on my bed, writing a novel about a girl named Jane who lives in England.
I’m fourteen, and I begin writing daily in a blue journal with a butterfly on the cover. I record my days, muse on current events, whine, vent.
A year later I come home with Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. My father sees it on the kitchen counter, picks it up and takes it with him upstairs. I am puzzled, but do not say anything. A few minutes later he comes back, my mother with him. He tells me I am not allowed to read that book. My mother’s brow is furrowed. I return the book in the morning. Visiting the library over the next couple of months, I slip it off the shelf and read it anyway.
The year I graduate from high school I see a film, The Bell Jar. I decide to read the book, and then to read the poetry of Sylvia Plath. On a trip to the shopping mall I visit the bookstore and buy my first book: Ariel. A thin paperback. I read it that night. I read it all summer long. I don’t understand the poems. The poems rip at my heart. I understand them perfectly. They make no sense.
In college I do not study literature. I major in art history. I sit in darkened lecture halls looking at slides of paintings and sculpture, and jot down ideas for poems and stories.
Years pass. I am Coordinator of Public Programs at the Neuberger Museum of Art. I am married. Three years later I am the mother of two sons. I am working part-time as a salesperson at Barnes & Noble; as a receptionist at a dentist’s office; as a personal assistant to a toy inventor.
I still write daily in the journal I began as a teenager. I’m still recording my days, musing on current events, whining, venting. But now, as an adult, I’m also playing with ideas for stories and poems.
In 1997 my mother dies. A year later I sign up for a memoir-writing workshop. At the first meeting, when asked to write for 15 minutes, I write about my mother.
I continue in the same memoir-writing workshop on and off with the same teacher and many of the same students. Spring of 2000. Again in the fall. I am writing, making progress, making friends. In the autumn of 2003 I register once more. But the following year I don’t sign up. Too busy. Can’t afford it. I’m fooling myself. I am not a writer.
In 2006 I get an e-mail from Susan, one of the woman from the workshop. She and Joan, our teacher, are starting a small writing group. They invite me, and Lori, another writer, to join. I accept.
In 2013 Joan, Susan, Lori, and I publish a book together, a collaborative memoir about our relationships with our mothers.
Today I am writing a poem. It begins with a heartbeat.
Image by Ginny. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Victoria Addesso, coauthor of Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance With Our Mothers.
Read more from the Journey into Poetry archives
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- Regional Tour: Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, NY - October 22, 2014
- Journey into Poetry: Victoria Addesso - May 30, 2014