To What We Lost – Miriam Sagan
From her memoir in progress called “Stash,” Miriam Sagan shares the confusion and some life altering moments in her childhood. It is riveting to read the perspective of a life filled with different events, different interactions, and yet the feelings are all too familiar. They touch the inner workings of a child’s mind with pure and simple honesty.
My mother and I are in a painting class, I think at a Y, in the city. I’m maybe four years old. It’s real paint, thick, strong primary colors. Real brushes, big handled, broom to whisk the paint on to paper tacked on the easels. My mother is painting fireworks, blossoms of color dripping down the sky. I’m painting…well, whatever a child paints. Shape. Big. Thick. Flow.
My mother doesn’t tell me it’s good. She cares about her painting, not mine.
“How do you know when you’re done?” she asks. She’s asked me, a child. “I don’t know,” I say. “It’s just…done.”
She looks so sad. “I can’t tell,” she says. “I don’t know when to stop.” Somehow I’ve failed her, but how was I supposed to know there was going to be a question?
Then the teacher starts criticizing coloring books, because they stifle creativity. I feel panic, because I love coloring. Don’t take it away from me. As an adult I’ll like to fill in blocks of color—with embroidery or marbling.
How do I know I’m finished? Fortunately I’ll forget about my mother’s pained question and just go on or stop when I want.
Some things don’t stop. Memory, my fear of teachers, my sadness about my mother. What would I tell her now, when she’s dead and I’m old. Don’t stop. Nothing is ever finished.
Everything falls—that’s the name of the season…seed balls of the gum tree, tiny helicopters from maple, chestnuts in their brutal casings. Piles of leaves and I get bitten by yellow jackets lurking inside as I ride through on my bike. It’s my charger, my mythical steed, but when I get a fancier one with hand brakes I crash into a privet fence, trying to brake by pedaling backwards. Habits die hard even in childhood, and later on all of childhood seems a habit it is impossible to break. Break my childhood and it will shatter like the snow globes I loved to collect—little tourist plastic spheres housing innocuous images. But where else could I shake something and see the Statue of Liberty covered in glitter snow or tiny plastic fish float up the Empire State Building? The habit I can’t break—probably don’t even want to—is that I am amazed by everything in my world and afraid of all the adults in it. It’s going to be difficult to work this one out.
The baby died. At least I think so. I’m ten years old. My mother’s live in- help, O, is a tall handsome Black woman from North Carolina. She’s almost forty, with two grown daughters. She gets pregnant by her common-law- husband, my mother’s expression, and wants to go home to her own mother and have the baby. That is when O. and my mother argue. My mother is worried. This is 1964, and almost forty is considered dangerously old. My mother wants O. in New York City, where my mother will pay for her to see a famous Park Avenue obstetrician (my mother’s). Instead, O. goes back to North Carolina. “The baby dies.” At birth? Before? After? No one explains to me. It isn’t really any of my business, as a child, which I understand. But still, I feel sad. Did my mother know something real about the lack of care for Black women in the South? Did O. know something about how alien she’d feeling in a Park Avenue waiting room? Sometimes, do babies just die? Years later, I’ll know other babies that died at birth. Everyone will be shocked and stricken, but it does not surprise me. My mother had my three younger siblings, then O’s baby died. A baby I never met. Can only imagine.
Turn right from my house, down the driveway. A large white house with what my mother calls a porte-cochere. My mother in her own way is a pretentious person. She did not speak English until she went to school, and yet she can pull out a French name for a grand entry way. My mother is hiding who she is, yet not completely. This is true of the other mothers on the block. The drunk mother, stoned on pills. The suicidal mother, dead in the garage. The mother with a lover. Things happen that I can’t even begin to tell you about yet. That is why I am hiding this story in plain sight, the way it has always been hidden.
In the first grade, I teach a boy named Chipper how to tie his shoes. It’s natural to me to explain what I know, but the teacher praises me for being kind. I don’t really like Chipper, and don’t feel very kind. It just seems wrong for me to know and him not to. That is the last praise I get. I can’t read. Pretty soon I’m in the “slow reading group” with, of course, Chipper. I can’t read at all. Consonants, vowels, they swarm across the page like ants after crumbs. If I’m lucky, I can count and figure out what sentence I’ll be asked to read. I may know a few words, or letters. Then I’ll listen carefully to everyone else. If they read “See Spot” I try to find something similar in my sentence. My parents lecture me. My father, the Freudian, says I am afraid to grow up. I want MY PARENTS to keep reading to me. My mother yells that I am not paying attention. Then the lecturing begins. I am not living up to my potential. Soon they will be saying I won’t go to college or get married because I won’t “meet anybody interesting.” I’m too dumb.
However, the summer of fourth grade I do begin to read. I have no idea why. Suddenly it comes together. I’m still not doing well in school and people are still yelling at me but I now have the most beautiful secret worlds into which I can escape. Reading remains unusual for me. I can read extremely fast, and sometimes words light up in different colors. All of these things have names, and a diagnosis. But to me this is just how things are.
Miriam Sagan is the author of over thirty books of poetry, fiction, and memoir. Her most recent include Bluebeard’s Castle (Red Mountain, 2019) and A Hundred Cups of Coffee (Tres Chicas, 2019). She is a two-time winner of the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards as well as a recipient of the City of Santa Fe Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and a New Mexico Literary Arts Gratitude Award. She has been a writer in residence in four national parks, Yaddo, MacDowell, Gullkistan in Iceland, Kura Studio in Japan, and a dozen more remote and interesting places. She works with text and sculptural installation as part of the creative team Maternal Mitochondria in venues ranging from RV Parks to galleries. She founded and directed the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College until her retirement. Her poetry was set to music for the Santa Fe Women’s Chorus, incised on stoneware for a haiku pathway, and projected as video inside an abandoned grain silo in rural Itoshima.
Her blog is Miriam’s Well–http://miriamswell.wordpress.com