Saturday, May 21, 2011


May 21, 2011

Dear Andrea, 
“Major anxiety attack. Stopping to catch breath.”  I text Steve. I am on my way back to Olympia from Tacoma.

Gray clouds are rolling in, banking from the Southwest. It will rain soon. It is almost noon.

I have hummingbird brain again.

I stop at the Starbucks at Barksdale Station.  At Barksdale Station there is also a Subway, Happy Teriyaki, dental office, a chiropractor and the Better Business Bureau. All of this is across I-5 from the south entrance to Fort Lewis.  

If I had turned left, instead of right, when I took this exit off the freeway, I would have driven onto the base.  There, I could find the house I spent most of my childhood in on Idaho Street.  I do not have time for that today.  I do not have the energy.

The school I attended from seventh grade to eleventh sat on this very spot Barksdale Station sits on now. As I look out the window from where I sit, I think about the girls I shared study hall with every morning for 4 ½ years—Donna, Sharon, Roberta.  I wonder what they are doing now. I remember the summer I rode in the parade through the streets of DuPont waving from the back of a convertible. I was a Pow Wow Princess. That weekend I danced in the streets, I almost drowned in a swimming pool, and my sister told on me for something I can't remember. I do remember being pulled out of the bathroom by my hair. The pummeling of fists against my head, my neck, my shoulders, being thrown against the wall, and trying to escape falling down the stairs.

Fort Lewis, Tacoma are the epicenter of my being.  When I am there tectonic plates shift inside me.  Some are driven under.  Others split in half.

Driving for an hour through the streets of Tacoma this morning, I took a tour of my youth and young adulthood.  These are things I never talked about with you.  I wanted your childhood to be free of the influence of mine. 

The house on North 42nd and Ferdinand, Holy Cross School, and church where I attended grade school to the fifth grade, made my first confession, and received my first communion--where I walked home from school thinking “if Jesus could endure the cross I could survive the beatings with the belt”--wishing I were Huckleberry Finn, that I could make a home for myself in the two block vacant lot wild with alder trees.

Past Sixth Avenue splitting the well kept historic North End from the working class South Neighborhoods.  Past Remann Hall, I took a taxi there three weeks before Christmas in 1970. It was either that or suicide. Sixteen years old, covered in bruises, I was strip searched, given prison garb, and deloused. Then put in solitary confinement for a week where I howled and cried until I could barely open my eyes as Bye Bye Miss American Pie played over and over through the stereo speaker in the ceiling until I was ready to drown myself in the metal toilet in the middle of the room. I ate from a metal tray passed through a metal slot in the door.  I was my only company.  My crime was that I could not take the beatings anymore--I ran away from home.

On a snowy night between Christmas and the New Year, my caseworker drove me through the dark snowy streets lit by the orange glow of street lamps down Sixth Avenue, onto Highway 18, Interstate 5 exiting on South 56th St. The final destination was St. Ann’s, a Catholic Children's Home on Alaska Street between South 56th and South 72nd.  The back of the property was the freeway.  In the front of the property was Wapato Lake and Wapato Park. I shared a room with a girl my age who had been a prostitute, and who had a baby that was killed by her boyfriend. I was safer there. 

Steve texts me back. “Bummer. No Sadie to help. Close eyes and focus on breath. Start at those and work your way up slowly making sure every muscle along the way is relaxed.”

I text back.  “Lorazepam. It will kick in soon.”

In the meantime I sit here and drink coffee. It is not safe for me to drive. I take every exit absent mindedly. I cannot keep track of where I am in any given moment.

For now, I continue to sit in this Starbucks in this leather overstuffed chair sipping a grande soy, 3 pumps of sugar free hazelnut syrup, with no foam latte. I will let my memories take me where they will until they find an exit and I feel safe enough to drive again.

From St. Ann’s Home I moved to a foster home by the University of Puget Sound, back to the North End. I stayed there until the day I graduated from high school one year later. The night of graduation I packed my clothes, John Denver albums, and my record player. The next morning I moved into an apartment three blocks from there.  It took three trips on foot to move all my possessions.  

The apartment was behind the Dairy Queen that fronted Sixth Avenue. The only furniture was a wooden chair, a table, and a brown sofa the former tenants left behind. I was happy there eating Top Ramen and scrambled eggs. The bus stop was just a block away, though I seldom had the change to take it. Just 18, I often hitchhiked to my job downtown at Woolworth's in the ladies’ underwear department where I tidied up the lacy panty displays.   I wanted to go to college then.  I had no idea how to make that happen.

Within six months I was married to a man I barely knew. After we were introduced, he showed up on my doorstep at my little apartment carrying bouquets of sweet peas he had stopped to pick between his house and mine.  He had a job, a house, a car. That fall I moved into his home on South 54th and Cushman. I sewed my wedding dress of white dotted Swiss while sitting on a portable Singer Sewing machine at his dining room table. I cut it from dotted Swiss using a Simplicity pattern.  John Denver sang Annie’s Song from a cassette player for our wedding.

My husband’s house was six blocks from Bob's Market where I bought Oreos and milk. Two blocks from Gil’s Pizza and Delicatessen where I could buy 12 inch pepperoni pizzas with black olives and extra cheese that I would bake at home. I soothed myself with food and hated myself as I outgrew each pair of pants. My husband only worked sporadically, then I had your sister to feed and clothe. We moved onto 5 acres we rented on Fox Island. I got chickens and a cow and planted a garden. When even the cow was starving I packed up what I could, took $10 in rolled pennies I'd been saving, your three year old sister and moved out. I was pregnant again, though I did not know it then. One month later, I had a miscarriage.  There was seven years behind me. 

I left Fox Island then and moved to Kent.  Thus started the years I filled out welfare forms, and paid for groceries with food stamps while the people in line behind me and the grocery clerk monitored the contents of my basket. Those were the years I stood in line at the food bank thinking there had to be a better life. Those were the years Mt. St. Helens erupted, and you were born. Thinking I had nowhere else to turn, finding dead ends everywhere, trying to find schooling – secretarial, fashion merchandising, searching for a way to get ahead. I spent eight years on welfare and tried every program they offered me until I finally came up with one of my own.

I applied to the University of Washington. I knew education would be my salvation and hopefully, yours. It was.

With no college credits behind me I finished at the University of Washington in 3 1/2 years.  I feared someone would find me there—tell me I did not belong. I sat in the back of a lecture hall with you in your stroller because I could not afford daycare. You learned how to sit quietly and entertain yourself with crayons, puzzles, Legos, and children’s brightly illustrated books. On days it was not raining, I took you out of the stroller and let you run through the lawns on campus, pick roses from the carefully pruned and tended gardens. 

Graduating in the top 10% of my class I was encouraged to apply to Harvard Law School. Thinking, why not? You'll never know unless you try, I applied. The first sentence of the essay I sent in with my application read “I am a single mother on welfare.”  I waited for an answer. 

While you were watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one Saturday morning in January 1987 the letter came from Harvard.  The postman pushed it into the mail slot in our front door with the weekly grocery flyers and the Puget Power bill where it then dropped onto the entry way floor.  There it lay until I padded over in my robe and slippers and picked it up.  My hands shook feeling the weight of the envelope, its contents yet unrevealed.  I found an opening for my index finger under the front flap, tore it open, unfolded the letter.

“You’ve been accepted to the Class of 1990.”

I miss those years taking you to class with me, first in a stroller at the University of Washington, then walking with your hand in mine through Harvard Square to class at the law school. You were a part of the class of 1990. At graduation you and your sister wore caps and tassels like mine, you walked across the podium. “Sherry Parsons Clark and her two daughters.” The announcer said as the Dean handed me my degree.  You put your hand in mine and smiled as we walked down the steps of Langdell Hall and the library.

The week after graduation we packed our couch, bed, clothing, toys in a 17 foot U-Haul truck. You and your sister sat on the bench seat beside me. The pet hamster sat on your sister's lap. On the drive home from Cambridge to Tacoma we stopped at Niagara Falls, Chicago, Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore, Bear Country. Climbing up over Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 from the flat irrigated farmlands of Eastern Washington then dropping back down to the lush forests at North Bend, Tiger Mountain on the other side I started to sing.  My heart was full.  You and your sister sang with me.  We were home again.  Trees that pierced the sky like arrows, falling water over rock alongside I-90, the last remnants of winter white clinging to the shoulders and the hilltops. Reaching Tacoma we pulled up to our new home at 6118 S. G Street. It was the first house I ever purchased on my own.  This would be our home.

I tried to settle in there.  I was restless in my new role of Harvard Law School graduate, lawyer.  Til then, I had been poor and powerless.  There was a lot to overcome.  I became a great actress—improvising that new life as it unfolded before me.  Terror had brought its own U-Haul—had taken up residence inside of me.  I believed peace could only be found outside of me. 

For 10 years I was single. On my own, I provided for you and your sister with no help from either of your fathers.  Harvard came with a big price tag.  There is no such thing as a free ride.  Student loans were coming due.  And though I recently graduated from Harvard Law School, I felt like I was nothing without a husband.  I didn’t really want to be a lawyer.  I wanted to be a wife and mother.  I only went to school because I needed to be able to support myself—and you and your sister. 

We lived in that house on G St. that I loved at first sight for less than a year.  Then I married Dean.  We moved to his home in Federal Way.
“I am okay now.” I text Steve.

I am lying. I do not want him to worry. I am lost in the rooms of our house I bought for us in Tacoma. The swing on the front porch, the front yard neatly tended. The three bedrooms upstairs, mine in the middle of yours and your sister's. Your space faced the street and had a little room under the eaves with bookshelves and a child sized table with two chairs. It was a place an imagination could run wild, where magic could happen at tea parties with a cabbage patch doll and a stuffed rabbit and your mother reading you a story.

My favorite place in that house was the sunroom downstairs. It looked out onto the mountain ash in the backyard. I put my office there, the desk in front of the windows, thinking I would write great stories and poetry in that space I created for myself.  I wrote nothing. 

I drove by the G Street house today. I parked on the street across from it. There is a chain-link fence where white picket used to be. The front porch swing hangs tilted from one rusted chain. The yard, the flowering quince I planted in the corner, is overgrown. There is moss on the roof. There are no curtains on the room that used to be yours. A sheet is carelessly tacked up there. I drove around to the back to see the mountain ash, the sunroom that I loved. The mountain ash is gone. The sunroom looks out on a dilapidated garage, a chain-link dog kennel, and an overgrown backyard.  Everything has changed.  There is no going back.

Everywhere in this town there are memories. Red Lobster, Red Robin, Dairy Queen, Safeway, Tacoma Mall, Fugate Ford, Point Defiance, the ferry to Vashon Island. Too many places to name that we have shared.   I am spent.

And the clouds have moved on. I can see blue sky. I have finished my latte.

I can drive again now.
                                                                                     Love you,

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